Veterans services highlighted at expo in Cummington

CUMMINGTON — Iraq war veteran Alonzo Swift lived in his car for close to four years after becoming unemployed soon after his return from duty in 2005. This changed when he learned about Soldier On, an organization that provides services for homeless veterans, at an outreach event in Springfield in 2010.

Soldier On was among the organizations present at the first Small Town Veterans Expo held at the Cummington Fairgrounds on Friday and Saturday. The expo, sponsored by the Central Hampshire Veterans Services District and the VA Central Western Massachusetts Health Care System, aimed to make veterans in small towns aware of available services. It featured booths from more than 30 organizations offering veterans services such as health care, housing assistance and career resources.

Swift, an Army veteran who is now the director of transportation for Soldier On in Leeds, was among the organization’s representatives at the event. He said Soldier On first helped him by giving him a place to sleep and putting a roof over his head. Sleeping in a bed, he said, allowed him to “wake up with a clear head.”

In late 2011 he began volunteering at Soldier On by driving other veterans to appointments. About a month later that became a paid position, and he became the director of transportation in October 2012.

Steven James Connor, director of the Central Hampshire Veterans Services District, said he got the idea for the expo from similar veterans outreach events in more heavily populated communities. He wanted to bring the same opportunities to veterans in rural areas.

On Saturday, a 16-vehicle procession began at the Pelham Public Safety Complex about 10 a.m. and traveled through Amherst, Hadley, Northampton, Williamsburg and Goshen before arriving in Cummington for the noon ceremony. Some of the vehicles in the convoy were driven by veterans who are now members of local fire and police departments.

“It just shows that these veterans go right back into public service,” Connor said.

Connor said the biggest turnout along the route was in Williamsburg, where residents held flags and “Welcome Home” signs. Connor said one of the participating veterans told him he almost cried when he saw that support.

Also among the vehicles in the convoy was a former racing car owned by Thomas Pease, color guard member and senior vice commander of the Michael F. Curtin VFW Post 8006 in Florence. He pulled it on a trailer attached to a pickup truck.

Pease, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War who lives in Florence, turned the 2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo into a “tribute car” after it became too old to race. It now bears approximately 3,500 names from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., including that of his friend, Lawrence N. Savino, who was killed in Vietnam in May 1969.

“Larry was a very popular young man,” he recalled. “All the girls liked him.”

After the arrival of the convoy, military veterans and their families filled the fairgrounds pavilion for the opening ceremony, which included remarks by local government officials.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, emphasized the importance of veterans receiving government services.

“I know there isn’t really enough we can do in state or federal government to say thank you,” Downing said, adding that he would like to “make sure you are served at least half as well by your government as you have served us.”

Other organizations with booths at the event included the Franklin Hampshire Career Center in Northampton; the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke; Homeward Vets Inc. of Southampton, a nonprofit that gives used or new home furnishings to veterans coming out of homelessness; and HomeFront Equestrians of Ware, a nonprofit that provides free riding lessons for children of military parents.

Hilltown Air Force veteran John Stec, who served in Iraq for eight months in 2003, said he came because he wanted to speak to a health care representative in person after his application to the VA system was held up due to a backlog. The event gave him the opportunity to meet a health care representative in person and set up a face-to-face meeting, Stec added.

While the rainy weather seemed to affect attendance, Connor said the veterans who turned out were grateful to learn about the services available to them. He added that the expo will be held again next year.

“The one thing that we all walked away with is that there is a need for what we’re trying to do, and we’ve just got to keep at it,” Connor said.

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Gazette Contributing Writer

Saturday, May 11, 2013 

(Published in print: Monday, May 13, 2013)