Messenger photos by John Matuszak
The Veterans First store doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside 2,300 residents who served in the military received assistance last year, and the organization founded in 2002 earned the 2007 Advocacy Award from the Governor’s Council on People With Disabilities.
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…”
(from 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 Street 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 soft-spoken 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 served, that’s good enough,” Schmenk said.
A nurse, a social worker and a benefits specialist are also available to help veterans to 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 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, and Schottenstein stores sold them coats at $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.