We can’t equate spending on veterans with spending on defense. Our strength is not just in the size of our defense budget, but in the size of our hearts, in the size of our gratitude for their sacrifice. And that’s not just measured in words or gestures. – Jennifer Granholm
The first weekend in September was hot and muggy, everyone was moving a little slower. I decided to spend my time volunteering at Delaware Valley Stand Down held in Levittown PA with Chaplain Chris and a host of volunteers who didn’t fool me one bit. Undercover Angels, I thought to myself, with hearts as wide as the sky.
For 20 years now this volunteer effort has been held post-Labor Day weekend providing meals, entertainment, donated clothing, medical care, vital housing services and a place to sleep for the weekend for hundreds of local vets, most of them homeless or facing serious social problems. The weekend was a tent city for vets and their families, to stand down in a drug-free, booze-free and violence-free place.
Not only did they get shelter, food, clothing, mental health counseling, haircuts, and showers, they got legal aid and counseling… plus plenty of thank yous, handshakes, hugs and smiles.
“I just wanted to give them a hug and say thanks, to let them know
they are not forgotten,” said Marie, one of the volunteers.
The objective of Stand Down was to relieve these vets of their isolation. For many, it was their first contact ever with any official veteran organization.
Mission accomplished. It was a resounding success.
Enter Rocky G, Stage Left
Somebody up there likes me! – Rocky Graziano
I left Standown at the end of the day and stopped to chat with a vet and security guard named Nick who offered me a cold bottle of water. A man, obviously homeless and a vet, sat down under a tree to the side of us and chatted about his military service. He then proceeded to give us a show, complete with animated singing and dancing. The guy was good. Real good. I play the piano, taught myself when I was young. I could knock your socks off. He smiled and lit up the place, leaving us with no doubt.
“My name is Richard G but my father called me Rocky after Rocky Graziano – because he knew I was a fighter. My Mom died before I was born. I was a tiny thing, premature.”
Rocky kept glancing over at the Stand Down tents. He was sweating. It was obvious he hadn’t eaten in days. You can go in if you want, offered Nick, cool down a bit. Rocky didn’t answer. Do you want me to go with you? I said. Rocky nodded, and off we went. The volunteers at registration took down his information while asking him questions about his service. Rocky entertained all. He started to get a little wobbly, reached for a chair and missed. The heat was getting to him. We offered him some water which he refused, and he looked around. Rocky was scared. I chatted with some of the volunteer vets who came over, obviously concerned. One of them recognized him. Rocky lives in tent city, over in the woods behind the store. He was really excited about coming here. Probably hasn’t eaten. Rocky was looking more and more uncomfortable. The Stand Down Staff decided he would be better served getting out of the heat and possibly medical care. They loaded up a backpack for Rocky with clothes and some food, and escorted us out to the street, where the vet who knew Rocky made arrangements for him to be picked up.
It was still really hot, Rocky was sweating profusely and was shaking. We suggested that he sit down on the grass for a bit, and he went down. A car pulled over. It was my friend Liza who volunteered at Stand Down that day, administering Reiki. The Big Guys had sent reinforcements from their ground crew to the frontline, one of their best. “I’m a nurse“ she said as she sat down and checked his vital signs. I didn’t know the specifics, but they weren’t good. He needs emergency care, and he needs it now. Liza gave him some orange juice. The volunteer vets called 911, an ambulance pulled up and they took Rocky inside and ran some tests. They said he need to go to the emergency room, but Rocky refused. He still looked scared. Liza and I will go with you Rocky, OK? He nodded. We quickly exchanged phone numbers with the concerned Stand Down staff, promised to keep them informed and off we went to the hospital.
We were there for hours as they administered meds and ran a series of tests and blood work, sharing the results with Liza as Rocky vacillated between entertaining the staff with song and his life story and trying to leave, saying he was OK. Liza and I looked at each other, and made a pact. Rocky wasn’t going anywhere, not on our watch. Not until we knew he was safe and secure, getting the help that he needed and deserved.
I’m sick, don’t think I’ll be around much longer. Tired too. There’s a lump in my abdomen, the doc says I have liver cancer. I’m from St. Petersburg Florida, my little dog and two kids are there, Aaaron Joseph and Erika Jean. She’s a beautiful kid. Go ahead, look her up. I just want to see my kids and little dog before I die.
The results of Rocky’s tests came in, and they weren’t good. He was dehydrated, blood alcohol level through the roof, liver disease, lumps in his abdomen, a high-level infection.
Rocky, you have our word. We’ll get you to Florida – but we need your help, you’ve got to cooperate – no drinking, and you’ve got to check yourself in for detox and medical care.
Rocky agreed, but still wanted to leave. He asked the emergency room staff where the piano was, he wanted to play it for them. Liza, the nurses and the doctors huddled, exchanged notes and made a flurry of phone calls while I distracted Rocky and kept chasing him down the hallway and bringing him back to the room. Not on our watch.
It was close to midnight when a van from the VA Hospital pulled up with the biggest most gentle and kind driver. He was all business, on a mission. “I’ve got this, it’s what we do” he said with a twinkle in his eye as he loaded Rocky into the van, we said our goodbyes and they drove off. Ah, another angel I thought, working undercover. Liza and I had no words. We just hugged. It was that kind of day.
Update: Rocky received excellent care at the VA Hospital and was released. He calls us every day and is still sober. Rocky’s old boss has a job waiting for him in St. Petersburg and he’s going home. We promised him a Greyhound bus ticket that costs a couple hundred dollars and some money to be held in trust for him in Florida to get him on his feet. Any individual or organization that would like to make a donation to help the cause can do so by credit card or Paypal through the non profit Tuesday Afternoon Philly Outreach at the following link – be sure to indicate your donation is for the Rocky G Home Fund:
Thank you Angels.