Crowds of veterans huddled in line, numbers in hand, waiting to pick up bags of free surplus military rucksacks, coats, boots and clothes.
They were among the hundreds who attended the 22nd annual Metro StandDown event on Tuesday at the Boy Scout Basecamp at Fort Snelling. Some came to receive free clothes, haircuts, health screenings and legal services. Others showed up simply to share a pulled-pork sandwich with an old friend.
The event, which continues through Wednesday, is designed to connect veterans with medical, legal and social services they might not be using otherwise, said Nathaniel Saltz, program director for the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, which organizes StandDown. Many veterans may not realize they have earned Veterans Affairs benefits, he said.
StandDown was modeled after a military stand down used during the Vietnam War to provide combat troops with personal hygiene items, clean uniforms, medical care and food in secure base camp areas. StandDown events have been held in 100 locations nationwide, and last year's Minneapolis event attracted nearly 900 veterans.
Although homelessness among veterans has fallen 24 percent since 2010, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, homeless veterans continue to face more barriers than other homeless people, particularly disabilities, Saltz said. "The more outreach we do, the more need for our services we find," he said.
Veterans might have a hard time seeking help, said Joseph Grimme, an Air Force vet from north Minneapolis, who came to the event for a routine checkup.
"It's a notion of being a warrior," Grimme said. "You're not weak. You've got to manage on your own."
Seeing other veterans at events like StandDown encourages veterans to learn about more benefits, and to keep in touch with others, he said. An underemployed arborist, Grimme also decided to take advantage of the event's new job fair and seek information about job opportunities at different tree companies.
"I see people who are really hurting," Grimme said. "It's a bit of a reminder that if you don't choose to get help, that's likely your endpoint."
About 225 veterans attended last year's event for the medical services: checking blood pressure, glucose levels, eyesight and other vital signs, said David Adriansen, Veterans Affairs Simulation Center Manager and director of the StandDown medical services. Last year, he signed up 19 new patients for Veterans Affairs health care. A couple of patients had such high blood pressure that they were sent to the hospital by ambulance. "People don't realize they're a walking time bomb," Adriansen said.
Chad Older, who served as a petty officer third class in the Navy from 1991-98, was waiting to speak with a lawyer who he hoped could help him finish filing divorce papers and requests for a new driver's license.
Older is 70 percent disabled, because of knee and back problems and post-traumatic stress disorder, and his disabilities have made it hard to find work.
"If we can catch an ear on what's going on, things can be better for us veterans," he said.
One of the older attendees Tuesday was Marine veteran William Young, 71, who came for the first time. Because he came alone in his wheelchair, he wouldn't be able to carry any free used clothing or goods home with him.
"Home" is a vague concept for Young, who has lived in a Catholic Charities homeless shelter in Minneapolis for the past few months. With the help of VA staff, he has been able to find public housing that he hopes to move into.
"It's a hell of a process you have to go through," said Young, who has a pacemaker and metal leg to replace the one he lost to complications of diabetes four years ago.
"I just want to get my place back."