With bulging duffel bags on their backs, Vandenberg Space Force Base’s Celeste Hird and Damian Davies were just two military members happily helping total strangers during the Santa Barbara County Veterans Stand Down on Saturday.
But they weren’t really strangers, since Hird and Davies and the people they helped all have been linked by serving in the military — either currently or in the past.
The Stand Down pairs veterans with an active-duty member to serve as escorts and baggage carrier.
“It’s always rewarding for me to actually spend time with people who have been prior service (members). I usually get a lot of wisdom from them,” said Hird, who holds the rank of specialist in the Space Force.
“So taking the time out today and just giving back for all the people that have done so much to set the path forward for me is something I wanted to do today.”
Before lunch, she and the veteran she was helping dropped off the duffel bag in the baggage claim area monitored by United Launch Alliance employees, giving Hird’s back a break.
While the local Stand Down marked its 11th year in 2023, this was the first time Hird attended.
“I’m surprised. I didn’t think it was anything like this. It’s a pretty cool turnout, and how we care for the people that cared so much for us and kept our country safe,” she said.
Geared to especially help homeless and at-risk veterans, the Stand Down actually is open to anyone who served in the military. In addition to clothing, shoes and haircuts, dozens of service providers were on hand to help with benefits, legal trouble, jobs and more.
Some attended with the families. Others showed up with their pets, who could get checked by a veterinarian or groomed, and leave with cat or dog food.
Others such as Army veteran Rudy Galvan attended with a buddy.
“It means a hell of a lot,” he said of the event. “I only take what I need.”
Gilbert Flores, who served in the Navy, had one key goal when he entered the Santa Maria Fairpark on Saturday morning — “for sure, a haircut, and I got that.”
“This is perfect,” he said. “This is beautiful,” Flores said as his escort, Space Force Capt. Kim Garcia from the 18th Space Defense Squadron, carefully packed clothing into a duffel bag.
Several veterans had huge duffel bags they lugged around filled with boots, hygiene supplies, jackets, sweatpants, shirts and handmade hats.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be doing the duffel bag drag again,” one veteran told another.
Fifth District county Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, with former aide Sandy Agalos serving as the coordinator, launched the local Stand Down after learning of a similar effort in San Diego.
The event takes place after a large army of organizers and volunteers hold planning meetings months ahead of time and solicit donations of new items.
In the years since starting the event, the team has perfected its formula, so much so that Lavagnino said the setup for this year’s Stand Down seemed to go much smoother.
“When I was here Thursday afternoon, I was shocked that we were almost already ready to go,” he said. “Usually, we’re scrambling at the last minute.”
He said donations appeared to be slightly lower this year, requiring an eleventh-hour shopping trip to fill the gap.
The 2023 Stand Down had more veterans pre-register than in the past, Lavagnino said. Final numbers won’t be available for a few weeks.
“The need is still there, obviously, and the community still wants to come out and support,” he added. “As long as that’s still happening, we’ve got to continue to have Stand Down.”
While Lavagnino has said he doesn’t plan to seek another term, he will remain in office through 2024, ensuring at least one more year of Stand Down.
“I would hope that whoever runs for next Fifth District supervisor has on their plan that Stand Down’s got to be part of the tradition,” he said. “Hopefully, I might have something to say about that.”