Monday, May 21 , 2018, 2:34 pm | Mostly Cloudy 66º


Local News

Stand Down Draws Several Hundred Military Veterans, Pets to Santa Maria Fairpark

Veterans from throughout Santa Barbara County participate in 6th annual event, which also pulls in cadre of repeat volunteers


The Santa Maria Fairpark was transformed into a one-stop shop Saturday morning for anything military veterans could need, including free veterinary care for their four-legged friends, as well as medical and dental care for themselves, and just some simple camaraderie.

Organizers expected to help more than 500 veterans countywide during the sixth annual Santa Barbara County Stand Down that drew retired servicemen and women of all ages to the entirely free event, where they received hot meals, haircuts, warm clothing, shoes, socks, blankets and more.

Lompoc resident and Air Force veteran Linda Hernandez took advantage of getting a haircut at the event, courtesy of Denise Farer, who works at JoPaulo | EcoSalon in Ventura and has volunteered her skills at the Stand Down for the last three years.

“It’s beautiful, wonderful,” Hernandez said of the Stand Down, the first event of its kind that the former homeless veteran had ever attended. Her son is stationed at Fort Bragg and told Hernandez about the Stand Down.

Farer also volunteers at the Ventura County Stand Down. She said providing a dozen free haircuts on a Saturday morning a couple times a year is the least she can do for the men and women who have done and given so much for the United States.

“The privilege to give back to our veterans who served (our country) and serve them as they served us (is why I do it),” Farer told Noozhawk with a big smile.

Mobile showers were set up at the Fairpark for the veterans, many of whom are homeless. The men and women could access a wealth of community-based organizations and services, among them mobile dental and medical care, including flu shots.

Free veterinary care and dog grooming also was available — and popular with many veterans at the event.

Vietnam veteran Ron Herbig of Lompoc has attended every Stand Down since its inception. This year, he said, he was especially interested in having his 12-year-old Chihuahua, Juanita Chiquita Margarita, examined.

The pint-sized pooch was bathed and had her nails clipped, and also got a new harness and leash during the event, as did many of the other numerous veteran-owned canines at the Stand Down. Veterans also were provided with free food for their furry friends.

“It’s nice to know there’s help for a lot of different things,” Herbig said about the Stand Down, noting he would like to see the event expanded by another hour or two.

He missed breakfast at this year’s event, which Herbig was looking forward to, because by the time he was dropped off in Santa Maria, the line to get inside the event was over an hour wait, he said.

“I tell (our ride) every year that we need to leave earlier,” Herbig said, adding he is grateful for the event and everything that is offered to veterans through it.

Free transportation to the Stand Down is provided for veterans living in Lompoc, Santa Ynez and on the South Coast. Lines started forming outside the Fairpark 90 minutes before the gates opened.

County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, founder of the Santa Barbara County Stand Down, said he learns something about the event every year, and this year was no different. He wants to try to streamline the front-gate process for next year’s event so veterans like Herbig don’t miss breakfast.

“That is sort of our choke point,” he acknowledged, noting that maybe adding a pre-registration step might help speed up the process.

Lavagnino started the Stand Down after watching a 60 Minutes segment about a similar event in San Diego. He felt he could change someone’s life, that of a veteran, simply by having contact with them, and he has seen it happen in Santa Maria.

“I was just talking to a gentleman who said, ‘I came to this event and I was homeless. I filled out the paperwork, qualified for Section 8 and now am driving for Uber,’” Lavagnino said.

“It has exploded. When we started ... it was basically old, donated clothing that people wanted to get rid of. Now it has turned into people bringing new towels, new clothes, underwear, socks, boots. The place looks like a department store.”

Every year the event grows in popularity and size, with more veterans attending and more bringing their animals. As long as the need exists, Lavagnino said, the Stand Down will continue.

“If you are a veteran and you need help, you have got to be here,” he said. “You should not leave here today without every need of yours being filled. If we can’t help you today, we will find a way to make it happen.”

Fabian Brown of Nipomo, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War, has attended the Stand Down twice. He said he appreciates not only being able to find a warm winter coat, but he also enjoys the sense of fraternity he feels there.

“From the time I served until I came back, no one said, ‘Thank you,’” Brown said. “If we had that camaraderie coming out, I think the Vietnam experience would have been a lot different for many veterans.

“This is a beautiful thing for all the sponsors and active duty to come together. This is camaraderie that you can’t get from civilians because you haven’t served. You haven’t been there. You don’t know.”

Monica Diaz has been involved with the Stand Down since it inception. Her son, Joseph Heredia, 22, of Santa Maria, lost his life on Nov. 20, 2004, during combat in the Middle East.

Diaz is in charge of the room where all the donated clothing, shoes and blankets are handed out. Asked what it means to her to be involved in the Stand Down, she grew quiet and contemplative in the midst of the noise as the last few veterans picked out a pair of boots or grabbed a fuzzy blanket, their dog in tow.

“I have lived it and I have tasted it,” Diaz said, tears welling in her eyes. “I know what it is like.

“These people who come in here, I know what it is like. Everybody who comes in here is somebody’s son or daughter. To have them come in here needing shoes ... laundry soap, it’s tough.”

Noozhawk contributing writer April Charlton can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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