Free store caters to veterans

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 Messenger photo by John Matuszak
 Gathering at the Veterans First free store are, from left, volunteers Margaret and Richard Carter, customer and Air Force veteran Jeff Rollins (with wife, Tracey), volunteer Gary Wholaver, and board members John Cowan, Jennifer Gaines, John Schmenk and Robert Wells.

"…let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan…"

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

A lot of people talk about supporting the troops.

The volunteers of Veterans First – who operate a free clothing store at 1205 W. Broad St. and offer other kinds of aid to those who have served in the military – have been doing it since 2002.

"It’s about caring about people. We chose a group of people that most people forget," explained John Schmenk, a 48-year-old Marine Corps veteran and founder and president of the non-profit organization.

"We think veterans should come first. They shouldn’t be begging or walking the streets lost."

The store provides clothing and other necessities, from wheelchairs to furniture and beds, without waiting or wading through red tape.

Services are available to any veteran of any branch of the military, including the reserves and National Guard, whether they saw combat or served during peacetime.

All a vet has to do is present discharge papers, a Veterans Administration card or other verification of service to receive assistance.

"If you come in and you have served, that’s good enough," Schmenk said.

A nurse, a social worker and a benefits specialist are also available to help veterans fill out paperwork and obtain the government assistance they are entitled to, in what they describe as an "unintimidating atmosphere."

Many of the people they see are homeless. One survey showed that as many as 300,000 veterans are living on the streets nationwide. In Columbus, there are around 500 homeless vets, Schmenk said.

Others might have lost their jobs or pensions or their belongings in a fire. Some veterans return from treatment for physical or psychological problems to find themselves locked out of their apartments and their possessions gone.

Whatever the circumstances, the men and women of Veterans First don’t know how to say no.

According to Schmenk, "There’s no reason you can’t help a veteran. ‘Can’t’ and ‘won’t’ are synonymous."

Recently, they have been busy arranging transportation for a diabetic veteran who needs to travel to the VA clinic in Cleveland.

The VA offers 11 cents a mile for transportation costs, but that doesn’t help the man since he doesn’t own a car, Schmenk reasons. So Veterans First is ready to step in.

They came in contact with a veteran and his wife, who both used walkers and had to literally crawl up the steps of their home.

Veterans First offered them a chair lift.

"Son, I can’t afford that," the man said.

"We’re not checking your bank account. You already paid, by serving your nation," Schmenk told him, recalling the tears of gratitude that the couple shed when the lift was installed.

"Our pay is a thank you. That’s the best pay there is," commented John Cowan, a Reynoldsburg resident, Marine Corps vet and Veterans First board member.

The organization was launched because of the need for warm clothing.

Schmenk and the others started a drive to raise enough money to purchase 300 winter coats for patients at the VA hospital in Chillicothe. They ended up collecting $45,000. The Schottenstein stores sold the coats for $10 each.

"It took six and a half hours to unload the truck," Schmenk said.

But they were later confronted with the fact that they were not licensed as a legal charity, an oversight that was quickly corrected.

"I’m not shy that we put together a hell of an operation," Schmenk said.

Through his Disabled American Veterans chapter, Schmenk recruited Cowan, a Vietnam War veteran, and Edward DuBey, who served during World War II.

"I’m the hook and drag man. I hook ’em and drag ’em in," said Cowan, who also volunteers at VA clinics.

Schmenk also enlisted Jennifer Gaines, a registered nurse and a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves, and Robert Wells, a Vietnam veteran who serves as their benefits expert.

"He gets results," boasted Schmenk, who said Wells is one of the best in his field.

Donna Gray Boyd, a member of the Governor’s Council on People With Disabilities, serves as a consultant and lobbyist for Veterans First.

The veterans who come to the store are treated with the dignity they deserve, according to Boyd, a lifelong advocate for people with disabilities.

"The respect people get when they walk in the door is priceless," Boyd said.

Veterans First served 2,300 customers in 2007 at their no-frills storefront location.

For their efforts, they received the 2007 Advocacy Award from the Governor’s Council on People With Disabilities, presented personally by Gov. Ted Strickland and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

They have received numerous other proclamations from Senator George Voinovich, Mayor Michael Coleman and members of Congress.

They receive the support of the Franklin County veterans affairs office, other veterans’ organizations, area churches and community service groups, including the Grove City Elks Club and the Angels of 9-1-1 in Pataskala.

They are not about to rest on their laurels, because they realize that the need to assist veterans is only going to get larger as thousands of soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

More troops are surviving traumatic brain injuries which would have been fatal 30 years ago, Boyd pointed out, presenting medical issues the states aren’t prepared to handle.

In 2008, Veterans First will begin a letter-writing campaign to make legislators and other leaders more aware of their organization and the need for funds to assist veterans.

They also plan to invite every presidential candidate that visits Columbus to come to their location.

Another goal is to set up a scholarship fund for the spouses and children of disabled veterans who cannot provide for their educational needs.

They’d like to keep their doors open more than three days a week at the building owned by Volunteers of America, that Veterans First renovated.

But that will take more volunteers and money to pay the utilities. They are also looking for donations of everything from boots and coats to medical supplies.

Even with the limited hours, Schmenk is ready to open up any time there is an emergency.

Putting veterans first is not an insurmountable task, Schmenk believes. "It’s easy to do. All you have to do is care."

The Veterans First free store, at 1205 W. Broad St., is open Tuesdays, noon-3:30 p.m., Thursdays, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Clothing can be dropped at the store on these days until 3 p.m., or pick-up can be arranged by calling Schmenk at 284-0329.

The Web site is www.veteransfirst.us, and contains links to other veterans’ organizations.

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