– Retired Navy Captain Denny Sapp (R) and Gilbert discuss other affordable housing projects in the works for veterans.
– The Veteran residents at the Tacoma Rescue Mission. The Vets take pride in the way they maintain the sleeping rooms they share.
By Joan Brown
Despite job fairs and other support, many Puget Sound military who have gone from one deployment after another to “instant” jobless civilian status would have no place to go without recovery shelters like the Veterans Resource Center. There, within the Tacoma Rescue Mission, veterans find a clean, safe, and orderly place in which to eat and sleep while receiving help from the VA or enrolled in schools to prepare themselves for a new profession. But none of this is a free ride.
Retired Navy Captain Denny Sapp, who helped found this and other facilities, estimates there have been over 150 vets through the center in the little over two years they’ve been operational. The agreement that allows veterans to stay there requires random urine analysis, 20 hours of weekly volunteer work at the Mission and allows a 90-day stay while working with the VA, Supportive Services for Veterans’ Families, or getting into VA medical or treatment programs. The good news is that so many of these veterans succeed in making a comeback—and then go on to “pay it forward.”
Gilbert is one of those. Only 17 years old when he decided to join the Air Force, he soon entered Special Forces training, deployed all over the world, and found himself ever on guard for possible danger, even off duty, one of the symptoms of the mild form of PTSD that he now realizes he had. “For a long time I couldn’t sit with others in a room unless I was seated in a corner, facing the exit,” he says.
Eventually, Gil left the Air Force to try to gain more stability and control in his life, and was immediately accepted into the Miami police force. There he once again encountered a lot of things he found difficult to see.
He had married and had a 10-year-old son by the time he decided to retire and move to the West coast where his wife was from. But Gilbert opted to forego the lump sum retirement his wife wanted him to take, choosing instead to wait until age 55 to begin receiving allotments from the Miami police. Shortly after the move, a friend asked Gil to come to Portland to help him.
“When I got back, the house was empty, the bank accounts were empty, my wife was gone, and my son was gone,” he says, overcome with emotion. All that was left in the bank was the $25 the bank withheld due to the fact it was a joint account and required dual consent. All that was left at home was a note that read, “You’re not the man I married 20 years ago.”
Totally devastated, he says, “I decided to go out into the woods and let the woods do me in because my religious upbringing didn’t allow suicide. I lived there a couple of months. Then someone brought me in to the mission and gave me a place to lay my head, even though it was a mat on the floor for a while,” he recalls. He was so completely filled with anger that one of the kitchen guys took Gil under his wing: “You want to take out your frustrations,” he told him, “come wash pots and pans.”
Next, Gilbert learned to prepare food and became an intern in the kitchen there and at two other shelters. Eventually, he returned to the Mission and began work in the emergency service center they call “the booth.” There he takes phone calls, assigns beds at night, and does “everything you can think of” from 2 to 10 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Always ready to listen, he is willing to open up and counsel others, just as others have helped him heal.
Veteran residents take pride in the way they maintain the sleeping room they share. At the end of the day, they clear the chairs, mop the floors, and set up the floor mats between the beds to get the room ready for the night. There’s a homey atmosphere to the pictures and banners hung on the walls and a clear sense of congeniality.
Gil credits the shelter manager Luis, a longtime volunteer, who himself spent 26 years in Special Forces in the military, with leading him back to God to help with all of the things that can overwhelm a person. Gil has just completed a course in ministry and when he leaves the mission center this fall to move to his own place, he plans to continue his work helping people, being there for others as they have been for him.
As the #2 man in the sleeping room, he says, “Being in the booth, I have been able to help guys out. It’s made me feel useful again because, when everything happened, I lost the ability to feel like I had anything to give. This is a place that helps people that are broken, a place where you can come and get help to put the pieces back together again.”
Gilbert clearly has his own pieces squarely back in place.
For more information, call the Veterans Resource Center office, 253-383-4493, or visit the booth at the Mission to ask for the veteran’s representative.
Just before Christmas every year, the Mission conducts a drive for clothing and blankets at the Tacoma Mall. Bags of clothing and donations for bus fares are also always welcome at the warehouse to the right of the Mission on South Tacoma Way.