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Homeless military veterans find help, hope at VA medical center

Former U.S. Marine Robert Derry, 51, center, joins other veterans getting wellness exams Saturday from C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center nurses.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Former U.S. Marine Robert Derry, 51, center, joins other veterans getting wellness exams Saturday from C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center nurses.

ST. PETERSBURG — At the end of a long, fluorescent hallway, a deputy emerged from the bustling office and told Harry Cooper his turn had come.

Cooper stood and leaned down to the camouflage backpack he'd been given earlier that day. Already stuffed with fresh clothes and toiletries, he added the contents of his pockets: a wallet, a lighter, a pack of 305-brand cigarettes and a chain of keys with one painted like the American flag. He removed his baseball cap, too, revealing a long, white pony tail that matched his handlebar mustache. On the dark green hat, two words were printed in bold black letters: "VIETNAM VETERAN."

On Saturday morning, Cooper, who is 67, had come bearing a burden to the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center. He was released from prison in late 2011 and had been clean from the drugs and alcohol that sent him there for nearly a year. But he still owed about $3,300 in court costs and fines. A judge was about to decide what should be done about it.

Another deputy escorted him to a lectern in a nearby conference room. Public Defender Bob Dillinger stood next to him.

"These are Agent Orange hands," Dillinger told the judge. He motioned to Cooper, who held up a pair of disfigured clumps at the end of his wrists.

The makeshift courtroom was part of the medical center's Stand Down for Homeless Veterans event, meant to help them with everything from housing to health care to employment.

It drew more than 350 people, a staggering number given the reality of those whom it encompassed: Veterans who live in this community and are either homeless or at risk of being so. Beneath a flawless spring sky, men and women limped in on legs made of plastic and metal. Others were pushed in wheelchairs or pulled by guide dogs. On their wrists, those who had transitional housing wore white bands; those with none wore orange.

Just after 11 a.m., in the courtyard's southeast corner, a man robed in a barber's apron neared the end of his haircut. Harry Bennett, 62, looked in a mirror and grinned, revealing his gums. He had left his dentures at home.

"Why thank you, brother," he told his barber, Art Goode. "You did me some justice."

"Now you can go out there and mingle," Goode said. "Do some dance moves."

KC and the Sunshine Band's Boogie Shoes throbbed from faraway speakers. Bennett smiled and nodded.

During his Army service in the early 1970s, fellow soldiers introduced him to hard drinking that evolved into decades of crack addiction and intermittent homelessness. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he sometimes prostituted himself to get drugs.

But a year ago, at this same event, the staff helped him get an apartment and admittance into the Pinellas Technical Education Center in St. Petersburg. He got clean. Soon, Bennett hopes to begin work as a cook.

"I was tired," he said, "of living the life of a nobody."

Around the same time on Saturday, Dayna Gomez, 46, was getting a new pair of reading glasses. She came to St. Petersburg in 2012 because of a special program the medical center offers to victims of sexual assault. A veteran of the Air Force, Gomez said she was raped by three other servicemen during her first year with the military in 1986. Not until moving to Florida, after decades of isolation and drug abuse, did she start to recover.

Two hours later, Harry Cooper held his hands up before the judge. He had served in the Navy until the early 1970s when two bullets sent him home from Vietnam. Drugs and alcohol and haunting nightmares followed.

"The things I had done. Had to do," he said. "I don't know."

He went through two stints in prison, three wives and 20 surgeries on his hands.

A pair of grandchildren, now ages 3 and 4, convinced him to change.

In the crowded conference room, Judge Henry Andringa offered him a deal: 100 hours of community service.

"You can take care of it now can't you?" the judge asked.

"I can," Cooper said.

"And you won't let me down, will you?"

"I won't."

With the palms of both hands, Cooper pressed the water from his eyes.

Homeless military veterans find help, hope at VA medical center 04/05/14 [Last modified: Saturday, April 5, 2014 9:41pm]
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