- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

Once an addict, always an addict, they say. But Eddie Curtis is trying to turn a new page.

“Every day when I wake up, with the Lord’s help, even though the temptation is there, I don’t go there,” he said Saturday morning.

Mr. Curtis, 56, was one of more than 300 homeless veterans who took part in the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center’s annual health and job fair.

The Winterhaven Homeless Veterans Stand Down provided health screenings — some mandatory — as well as job counseling, chaplain services and a generous buffet lunch. “Stand down” is a military term for relaxing from a state of readiness or alert.

Mr. Curtis wolfed down ham, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, salad, a biscuit, chocolate cake and a chocolate chip cookie before joining volunteers, staff and other homeless veterans dancing the Electric Slide in the cafeteria.

A chef passed by and asked how his meal was. Both laughed as Mr. Curtis said, “Great, if I could have a bowl of chitlins.”

“Next year,” the chef promised.

Mr. Curtis had completed his mandatory round of health screenings and education. The veterans could not receive lunch and free gift bags — donated by Zips Dry Cleaners, containing items such as hats, gloves and socks — without having those stations checked off on their forms.

The Vietnam-era veteran said he has chronic back pain and requires an artificial lens to see out of his right eye. He is seeking work around town, and has applied for a job with the Compensated Work Therapy program at the medical center.

Mr. Curtis earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Virginia Union University in Richmond upon leaving the military, but then fell into drugs and crime. He used heroin, crack and cocaine.

“I was in the criminal life for about 27 years,” he said. “I got tired of it. I’m trying to do something else, with the Lord’s help.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is trying to help, too, through the Winterhaven program at its medical centers across the country.

VA Secretary James B. Peake, a retired lieutenant general, decorated Vietnam combat veteran and former Army surgeon general, was on hand to oversee the event and help serve the homeless.

“The wrong thing to do is to try to push [homelessness] under the table. Get it out where you can deal with it,” Mr. Peake said.

“We’re saying, ‘How can we support you, get you out of the cycle?’ ” he said.

Mr. Peake thanked the hundreds of volunteers from the hospital staff and service organizations such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, soup kitchens and church groups for manning the fair. Disabled American Veterans was among the groups helping to shuttle the homeless to the medical center in vans.

Being an event for the homeless, all was not sweetness and light.

Some veterans were overheard complaining about having to complete the mandatory health stations, such as HIV education.

“There’s always strings,” one said.

“They send you back; you got one thing missing,” said another.

A total of 326 homeless veterans participated, including 14 women, but that was lower than the 381 who preregistered for the event.

A VA public-affairs director noted that Saturday’s weather was relatively mild — severe weather would have brought more homeless in — but said she was not disappointed by the turnout.

“That figure represents a significant number of homeless veterans in our community who obtained needed health care resources,” she said in an e-mail after the event. “We may also have reached many veterans with housing, benefits and job-training assistance who hadn’t yet accessed the VA system.”

But even veterans with gripes appreciated the fair.

One who identified himself only as Steve, a five-year Army veteran, said he has been getting help from the hospital’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center, but thinks his concerns aren’t being addressed.

Steve said he keeps losing jobs because of “burnout,” and said he suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I’m very frustrated with the program, actually,” said the Marlton native, 48. “But I don’t think I’m a typical case for them.”

Of the health and job fair, he said, “I think it’s a great thing. All the services they provide, … all this is very valuable stuff.”

Vietnam veteran Ernest Brown, 55, agreed. Mr. Brown, a diabetic from Riverdale, was disappointed that one program he learned about at the fair was available only to D.C. residents.

Still, he’s grateful for the “non-boot camp” exercise program he’s part of at the medical center that also provides dietary advice.

“I’m very excited about the program. It’s helping to save my life,” Mr. Brown said.

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