Sitting in a tent Saturday that smelled faintly of barbecue, Pasco Circuit Judge Shawn Crane reviewed court costs racked up by a Navy veteran charged with drug possession and criminal mischief.
Fines waived. Case closed.
It was an unusual setting, with legal assistants in metal folding chairs. But Crane, who wore jeans under his robe, had company.
About 400 people volunteered for Operation Stand Down, a three-day event for homeless and low-income veterans, which continues today. Crane saw about a dozen veterans and reviewed 52 cases. Elsewhere in Veterans Memorial Park, guests were offered everything from hair cuts to insurance referrals.
"It's a great cause," Crane said. "They've given a lot to our country."
Graduate students from Saint Leo University offered mental health counseling in a booth with coffee and couches. All free. All for veterans.
The event is in its fourth year, and similar "Stand Down" efforts happen all over the country, including locally in Tampa, Bradenton and at Bay Pines.
Coordinator Patti Templeton, who works for faith-based nonprofit One Community Now, said word spreads quickly.
Veterans often hear about the weekend through the Department of Veterans Affairs, soup kitchens and shelters. They get hot meals and showers, clothing and backpacks.
"For those who are completely down and out of luck, we are able to help them," she said.
About 160 veterans preregistered, with more showing up and registering on-site. Those without transportation arrived on buses rented specifically to get veterans to the park.
Templeton said one told her that "if the bus didn't come, he would have killed himself."
A short walk from Crane's makeshift court, Dr. Louis Traci performed a surgical tooth extraction on John Nelson inside a medical bus. The dentist worked intently over his patient in a small, fully equipped area that smelled strongly of disinfectant.
Traci heard about the event through his church and said he knew he wanted to volunteer. "They just don't have the money or access to care," he said. "This is important."
Nelson, a 45-year-old Army veteran, lives at a shelter in New Port Richey. He had "pretty bad" tooth pain for weeks but couldn't afford to see a doctor, he said.
At the gathering Nelson also received legal advice and job assistance. "They take good care of us out here," he said.
Stand Down volunteer Betty Jones drove from Orlando with her husband, who is a Vietnam War veteran. The couple has volunteered at events similar to Operation Stand Down for seven years.
She said she is often "taken by surprise" by the struggles former service members face.
"These veterans need to know somebody cares," said Jones, 73.
Steve Walker, 60, an Army veteran from Seminole, said he now feels appreciated, having battled depression and unemployment for years.
Once he's back on his feet, he said, he wants to volunteer his time to help other veterans.
"I'm learning how to ask for help," he said. "I'm not giving up hope."
Contact Ayana Stewart at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @AyanaStewart.