by Alisha Semchuck, staff writer
People in leadership positions have often been quoted as saying, “it takes a village to raise a child,” a concept that can equally apply to veterans and their families struggling through hard times, and a notion even more relevant for veterans living on the streets without food or shelter to protect them from frigid winter temperatures and stifling summer hot spells.
After returning “home” from whichever branch of the military they served, as a testament of their commitment to guard their homeland and its citizens from foreign enemies, a park bench for a bed and scraps of food from a trashcan must seem like the worst slap in the face that any veteran can receive. Some thoughtful and patriotic U.S. residents realized and appreciated the efforts that men and women in the armed forces have contributed, and they acknowledged it’s time to pay back by providing resources to fulfill veterans’ needs.
Out of that sense of indebtedness, various organizations formed. Several of them came together July 15, 2021, to inform veterans about available resources that could raise their status quo and perhaps lift their spirits.
The meeting, at the Larry Chimbole Cultural Center in Palmdale, Calif., was arranged by Nayda Figueroa, the Community Relations Director for Vets4Veterans, one of the organizations that assist with information about employment, benefits, education and various other factors intended to improve veterans lives.
“We’re networking and mingling right now,” Figueroa said, as the crowd gathered in a second-floor meeting room at 6 p.m.
“We’re looking forward to having a great session,” said Juan Blanco, president of Coffee4Vets, a weekly Tuesday morning breakfast gathering for veterans, organized by Blanco and his wife Atherine.
Once the socializing wound down, Figueroa addressed the crowd of roughly 75 attendees.
“We are gathered here today, as a community, to learn, support and develop relationships with organizations that can assist our veterans in the Antelope Valley. Today is about you. It is about our veterans that do not have voices easily heard, and it’s about community — the AV,” Figueroa said.
“It is about growth, as we grow together to support those who have already given so much and their families. It is also about supporting those just transitioning into civilian life and giving them the encouragement and opportunity to help them flourish — strength in numbers.”
Figueroa concluded her welcoming comments by asking attendees to sit with someone new, rather than their usual friends.
The Antelope Valley Young Marines presented the colors for the crowd to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Designated speakers included Stacia Nemeth, treasurer for Point Man Antelope Valley; Donniel Marquez, Mental Health America of Los Angeles, Military Resource Center; Alejandro Castillo, on behalf of Homes4Families; Anthony Rodriguez, a Local Interagency Network Coordinator, LINC at CalVet; Christine Ward, an aide for U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia, R-25th Congressional District; Jack Woolbert, President of Vets4Veterans; Tony Tortolano, a Marine (semper fi) and Vice President of Coffee4Vets; John Parsamyan, an Army Infantry veteran, Vice President of Vets4Veterans and named Veteran of the Year in 2020 by the city of Palmdale; Ken Friend, a Talent Acquisition Manager at Northrop Grumman; James Mumma, a “Battle Buddy” and Peer Support Specialist at a new Lancaster office for the Veteran Peer Access Network, aka VPAN; and Figueroa, who wears multiple hats including a position on the board of U.S. Veteran Business Alliance.
Nemeth kicked off her five minutes in the spotlight by acknowledging the presence of Linda Willis, who works with her at Point Man, as the organization’s secretary. The Antelope Valley chapter of the organization is an Outpost of Point Man International Ministries. Army veteran Mike Bertell is the chapter president, but health reasons kept him from attending the event. Nemeth said veterans meet and share their stories with one another. Only veterans are allowed to attend those meetings, so because she and Willis are not veterans, they are locked out of those sessions. Point Man tends to the spiritual, physical and emotional needs of veterans and their families. Licensed Marriage and Family therapists Dennis Anderson and Gerry Rice work with the group.
Point Man also houses and maintains the Mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall, a duplicate of the Wall in Washington, D.C., but half the size. Nemeth said when she began working at Point Man she was told she would love it. She had her doubts. Before long before she was sold. The experience touched her heart.
Marquez said the Military Resource Center program at Mental Health America is relatively new. Often a veteran needs documents and that program can help. In addition, the program assists veterans and their families with food — “healthy food,” Marquez said. “We help veterans with anything to do with their health. We have Outreach Services. If you’re a veteran in need of housing, please give us a call.”
Marquez said she began working with veterans after 2011.She loves “being able to make a difference for someone who had doors shut on them.”
Castillo recalled being in the situation so many other veterans face, wanting home ownership and thinking that was impossible, until Homes4Familes stepped in. The program is intended for lower income families that are first-time property buyers, who can demonstrate the ability to pay the mortgage and are willing to take classes about budget planning. They must also pay with sweat equity by working on the construction of another veteran’s home.
“Now that I’m part of Homes4Families, I spread the word,” Castillo said. “We are currently building 56 homes here in Palmdale.”
Rodriguez served as a captain in the Marine Corps. He said he had worked in various positions at different places, but his “best job” is at CalVet. There he is responsible for a few thousand veterans. CalVet has a mission of providing services at the state level. “We augment the Veterans Administration.”
“We’re involved in a lot of things behind the scenes,” Rodriguez said. “We control all the GI money that comes to California.” CalVet provides scholarship funds for veterans’ children to attend schools and earn degrees.
During the pandemic, Rodriguez said, he received many calls from crying widows and CalVet helped them with burial services for their veteran spouses.
“We need more things like this so veterans know where to go,” Ward said of the Resources Networking event on Thursday.
“Maybe you just thought of getting your medals. We’re here to help you. Maybe you’re stuck with a bill. Please, don’t hesitate to call our office. We’re here to help with any federal office,” the Congressman’s aide noted.
“You will find me at each breakfast,” Ward said, referring to veterans’ breakfasts that occur at specific locations on three mornings each week. “I get paid to do that, but I love my job. If it’s something I can’t do, I can help get you to the right person.”
Woolbert said Vets4Veterans was founded by a group of Vietnam veterans led by the late Tom Hilzendeger who started the group 11 years ago, “realizing veterans needed help. We like to provide a safety net and an opportunity for stability for veterans. During the pandemic, we started a monthly food distribution.”
Woolbert said volunteers provide all the elbow grease. They donate their time. No one gets paid. “If we attend a function, we pay our own way. We have a scholarship program (at) Antelope Valley College.”
Vets4Veterans also owns a home where a veteran and his or her family can stay for free from six months to a year while repairing the family’s financial situation. The organization also sponsors an “art healing group.” Veterans can release their feelings, any pent-up anger or anxiety through painting, drawing or sketching.
“Everything we do is at no cost to veterans. Every penny we raise stays in the Valley,” Woolbert said. “Veterans need the help. They deserve it, they earned it.”
Tortolano, a Marine vet, joined Parsamyan, an Army Infantry vet, at the podium.
Tortolano, the Coffee4Vets vice president, mentioned that after he suffered a work-related injury, Ward was able to get all the military records he needed to prove his eligibility for benefits. His situation demonstrated how the various veteran support entities, whether nonprofit organizations, private industry or governmental bodies, work together to fix what’s broke.
Then Tortolano turned his attention to Parsamyan, informing event participants that the Army veteran started a training program for people returning to civilian life. He trains them to become auto mechanics at his shop, Armed Services Autobody.
The training teaches them life skills and ensures their success in the future, according to Parsamyan, named Veteran of the Year in 2020 for the city of Palmdale.
“I’m an immigrant kid. I came here in 1988 from a communist country,” Parsamyan said.
“A lot of veterans have anxiety about leaving the military,” Parsamyan said, also drawing from his personal experience. “In the infantry we know how to do our job — shooting and blowing up. Since 2002, I’ve been bouncing around. I was going to go to Texas. Someone said, ‘why don’t you check out the AV?’ ”
“Veterans can do anything. They are very resourceful.” Still, he said, “there’s always a doubt.” The fear of failure. To succeed, Parsamyan altered his thinking and adopted the following philosophy: “Make a mistake. Learn. Don’t make that mistake again.”
His pledge to veterans: “I will support you with anything you do as long as you give back. A simple deed goes a long way.”
“My wife saw me struggle in the 10 years I was bouncing around.” Parsamyan was having a grand opening at his new business location on West Avenue J-5 the next day.
Friend said Northrop Grumman initiated the NG6 Program “to help vets get back on their feet.” The aerospace firm hired 26 homeless veterans last year. NG6 was done in conjunction with Los Angeles County to assist homeless veterans with employment and funding for housing. Northrop also partnered with Embry Riddle University to provide education for the veterans and with Valley Oasis to reach out to the veterans.
Friend said a homeless veteran event scheduled for Saturday aimed at providing vets with haircuts.
Mumma works out of the VPAN office that opened a few weeks on Avenue M near 3rd Street East.
“We help veterans with all kinds of services,” Mumma said. “The most dominant thing I’ve seen so far is homelessness. They’re looking for a place to live. We actually go out to the desert and find the encampments. We find the homeless and connect them (with) permanent housing and their benefits. We also connect them with jobs.”
Homeless veterans who receive assistance from VPAN learn how to write a resume that a prospective employer will read and they also receive training for the job. Types of work vary from positions in the engineering field to employment at a college or in a restaurant.
“The job field is opening up,” Mumma said. Other help veterans receive deals with confronting issues like substance abuse and alcoholism, anger management and suicidal thoughts.
Figueroa said she helps veterans with healthcare plans through Humana and Medicare which can be complex and difficult to understand. “I listen first, ask some questions, then listen again.” She assists veterans with securing benefits that they are eligible to receive.
Asked why Humana, Figueroa said, “we are a national sponsor” with the U.S. Veterans Administration.
Figueroa said serving veterans became her passion, largely because she is surrounded by family members who are veterans.
Her son, Erik Garcia, 29, is an Air Force veteran. “My son always knew, since he was little, that he wanted to be in the military. He always wanted to work for NASA. He hasn’t done that yet.”
Her fiancé, 51-year-old Edward Harrison Fugee, III, is an Air Force veteran that had been stationed in Japan.
Her younger brother, Gene Figueroa, 51, is a Gulf War veteran who served in the Army in the early 1990s. “Part of my passion for what I do was influenced by what I saw my brother go through. He saw a lot of things that affected him. When he came back, he wasn’t the same man.”
Nonetheless, he never lost his chivalry. Figueroa said he still opens doors for her.