Houston area veterans joined active military members for a moment and re-lived a chapter in their military careers.
The Mayor’s Office for Veterans and Military Affairs sponsored the “2023 Houston Stand Down: 30 Years of Empowering Houston Veterans” event on a sauna-like Friday afternoon at Emancipation Park with partners Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Career Gear Greater Houston.
There were plenty of resource booths available on the grounds for veterans who needed anything from clothing, a hot meal, help creating a resume and even a place to get a haircut and shave.
“We came over here today because it’s a veterans’ program and we wanted to give back to community,” Shakur Doughty, a student at Texas Barbers College and U.S. Army veteran said.
Doughty served three years at Fort Cavazos (formerly Fort Hood) in Killeen as a light wheel vehicle mechanic. For the Amite City, La., native, giving back is only natural.
“It means a lot. I know a lot of people don’t have the background where I come from. Most people might not be able to pay their bills, or they might have bad health. So, this is a good thing. Besides, I like giving back. Where I come from, we give back.”
A “Stand Down” is a period where servicemembers take a break from daily activities and field training to rest, relax and breathe. For the City of Houston, the term took on a different meaning as it became an opportunity for officials to address housing challenges with its growing veteran population.
“We use the term 'unhoused' because we seek to change the perception of veterans who have faced challenges and major or minor setbacks,” Dr. Lashondra Jones, liaison with MOVMA explained. “Many people think of it as someone who live under a bridge or in an encampment.”
That isn’t always the case, Jones said. Many veterans are also “couch surfing” or temporarily staying in hotels, or friends or family homes because of a divorce, domestic violence, long-term illness, etc.
“Some are still actively serving, unfortunately,” she said.
Houston is home to one of the largest veteran populations in the U.S. with an estimated 300,000 veterans. Being two years removed from a 20-year conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to present challenges for many of today’s veterans as they transition back to civilian life, as well as veterans from prior conflicts.
Former Army combat medic Erica Tamez understood those challenges all too well. She enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard and served a tour in Afghanistan from 2005-2006. The experience resulted in post-traumatic stress, drug addiction and a stint in jail, she said.
“The challenges of transitioning were overwhelming,” she said. “After losing so much from the impact of PTSD and addiction, I realized that the same courage I had in Afghanistan was still deep inside me. It’s the soldier in me that has continued to give me the courage to fight.”
After getting out of jail, Tamez said she worked to clean up her life. “I was learning how to be a mom again,” she said. “I felt like I lost all of that when I was gone. And of course, I struggled with the addiction part of it. It wasn’t until I started getting treatment for the post-traumatic stress that I was able to slowly reintegrate back into society again.”
She was living in her mother’s one-bedroom apartment and had just gotten custody of her son when Tamez met Jones and told her about her background. “She was in need of assistance to move into a rental house,” Jones said.
Through MOVMA and the Galveston County chapter of Catholic Charities, Tamez was able to get her deposit for a down payment for a home of her own. “We do our best to create partnerships and collaborations with as many local organizations as possible to offer wrap around services,” Jones explained.
“A lot of organizations offer a plethora of resources while others offer only a limited number. Because of this, we worked together to get the unhoused veteran and their family services as quickly as possible to assist with permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing move-in costs, or funds to avoid eviction,” she said.
With that downpayment, Tamez also received a chance to get herself out of her rabbit hole.
“As soon as I was able to put a deposit down for the house, I got on my feet. I struggled a little here and there, but I’ve always been able to reach out to Catholic Charities or Dr. Jones and ask who I can ask to reach out to. Catholic Charities, Combined Arms … there are quite a few organizations that have helped me along the way,” she said.
Today, Tamez is enrolled in the Veteran's Readiness and Employment program and attending the University of Houston to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“The fight began with me reaching out for help. That help came from my fellow veterans, VA Mental Health providers and other recovering drug addicts,” she said. “I have experienced changes in my life, such as going back to school, rebuilding a relationship with my children and being active in the recovery process.”
Many of the programs offered at the Houston Stand Down are also offered in military programs like “Soldier For Life", which offers an array of resources necessary for veterans to have a smooth transition to civilian life.
“Having a one-on-one discussion with a VA benefits representative prior to exiting the armed forces is extremely important. Just ask the thousands of veterans that have met with a benefits representative prior to discharging from active duty,” Jones said.
Jones said it’s important for veterans and readers to know that life happens. “Divorces, PTSD, domestic violence, death and other unforeseen issues sometimes leads to a trail of unfortunate financial setbacks. We as a community do our best to assist in any way that we can, with no judgment,” she said.