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Veterans helping veterans

Veterans are proud people. David Kistenmacher spent much of his life trying to ignore scars that Vietnam had left on him.

“When we came back,” he says, “we were too proud to ask for help. Some of us tried to join Veterans of Foreign Wars, and we were told, ‘You weren’t in a war.’ Because Vietnam was not called a war.”

The attitude showcases the unique challenges that Vietnam vets face compared to the revered “greatest generation” of World War II.

Although not officially a combat soldier, Kistenmacher, stationed at battalion headquarters, “saw action at least every other night. We saw rockets every night, mortar shells two or three times a night.” He learned that his life depended on being super alert all the time.

Kistenmacher came home to a marriage gone bad and a country that had turned against the war. Remarried, he struggled to earn a living as a journeyman carpenter, then worked with developmentally disabled adults. Later he procured burial flags for the VA. Along the way he raised five children. It took his wife 41 years to convince him to ask for help.

What kind of help?

“Everything,” he says. “Heart disease, artery disease, PTSD. The full package from Agent Orange.”

Then he found Vet Connect. “Vet Connect is my therapy,” he says. Of traditional therapy, he says, “If I sit in a small room with a bunch of veterans, I can’t do it. It’s too confined.”

Kistenmacher discovered Vet Connect in 2010 and is now vice president.

Vet Connect is a weekly event at the Santa Rosa Veterans Building. Chapters also meet monthly in Petaluma, Sonoma and Guerneville. In the spacious main hall there are tables set up to offer services to veterans. It’s a one-stop shop for everything from the 36 organizations that participate in the Wednesday gatherings.

Need a haircut? There’s a barber. Need a job? There’s job counseling and even the offer of a free daylong workshop on the fine points of getting a job, such as resume writing. Racks of clothing are available from the Goodwill for those in need of new threads. Coffee and donuts are on the house, as are bag lunches distributed by AMVETS.

There’s help with veterans benefits, health care, housing and even recreation and art. Want to learn to sail? Two organization offer free sailing lessons for vets on organization boats. Need furniture once you’ve found a home? Vets can visit the Vet Connect furniture warehouse and pick out furniture to be delivered by the Vet Connect truck. There are military organizations and legal services. A wheelchair-enabled representative from Disability Resources teaches the finer points of wheelchair use.

But for Kistenmacher, the greatest benefit is the healing he found in helping others. “I can get better therapy from helping others. I get more out of it, I feel better about myself, and I’m doing something. I’m still getting help by helping others.”

During his time with Vet Connect, he’s seen the number of participating organizations grow from 15 to 36. Recently, Vet Connect initiated Clean Day, with two or three other organizations. “We supervise the showers and provide clean clothing.” Other organizations provide counseling and food and seek housing for the homeless.

“We never turn a vet away,” says Kistenmacher.

That includes DDs—vets with a dishonorable discharge. Vet Connect will work with the vet to see if they can get the discharge reversed.

The organization was started by vets and is run by them. Fundraising is by donation or by attending fundraising events such as the two described below. Their “Ducky Brigade” sells “collectible rubber duckies” at Wednesday Night Market, through their “buck-a-duck” program, started by Bruce Thompson, the designated “Ducky Commander.”

Richard Jones, Vet Connect president and CEO, helped start Vet Connect nine years ago with his wife and two other vets.

“We shouldn’t have these problems,” Jones says. “My thinking is that if you’re going to send me or my children to war, you’d better have enough money to help us for the rest of our lives.”

To learn more about Sonoma County Vet Connect and see a list of participating organizations, visit vet-connect.org, or call 755-1417.

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