Cumberland invites vets to Stand Down Hundreds of military veterans visit Diamond Hill Park to take part in annual Operation Stand Down
CUMBERLAND – The green and camouflaged military tents were back in place at Diamond Hill Park on Friday as the 25th Anniversary Operation Stand Down weekend got under way.
The volunteer veterans’ assistance program was expecting a record number of former members of the military to visit the encampment while meeting old and new friends and accessing a wide range of support services.
“It’s going very well,” Dee Dequattro, Operation Stand Down director of communications, said as veterans continued to arrive at the park Friday morning.
“We open at 7 a.m. and we’ve already had our first bus of veterans come in and a second is on the way,” she said.
Last year, Dequattro said about 500 veterans made the trip out to Diamond Hill Park and she expected much more than that to be there as the weekend continues.
Operation Stand Down has been based at the park for the past 23 years and has received increased support for
its services over the years, she noted.
The encampment is styled on a military forward operating base and has all the facilities you would expect to find in one including housing and a mess hall.
The camp allows Operation Stand Down’s partner agencies to have direct contact with veterans at a single location, she explained.
“The goal is to help veterans in need with an array of services whether that is housing, employment, basic health services, food, clothing, legal services and substance abuse counseling,” she said.
The Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal will have an office set up at the camp on Saturday to help veterans with license or records issues, she noted.
A number of counseling providers will also have booths where the veterans can connect with any of services that they require, she added.
U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, who joined U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, Gov. Gina Raimondo, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, and Senator Jack Reed in kicking off the weekend, said Operation Stand Down was an opportunity for the support groups to reach out to veterans “no matter where they are,” and make sure their needs are being met. “It’s veterans helping veterans,” he said. “It is also kind of a chance for people to get together and share their experiences and the problems that they are experiencing. It is a real community,” Whitehouse said.
Tony Dequattro, Dee’s father and one of the founders of Operation Stand Down from Cumberland’s American Legion Post, said the group went to work helping veterans with their needs because “the government wasn’t doing it.”
The group kept seeing their fellow veterans on the street because they weren’t getting the help they needed and started working with other organizations to address the problem, he said.
“It has been growing ever since,” Dequattro said.
Early on Operation Stand Down helped Vietnam veterans who were struggling with the aftermath of their service but more recently the organization is seeing more and more veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan and Persian Gulf conflicts coming to the encampments.
The encampment set up also seeks to give the veterans an environment in which they will be able to address some of their needs on their own, he noted.
“It brings them back to a point in time in their lives when they had respect and dignity and the camaraderie of a veteran to a veteran,” he said.
“We have every service that they need here and it is one stop shopping,” he said.
Cumberland Mayor William Murray, who was joined by Mayor Allan Fung of Cranston at the encampment, said he viewed Operation Stand Down as an “outstanding” organization.
“We have had this at Diamond Hill Park for 23 years now and with absolutely no problems while being able to do a service that helps our veterans,” Murray said. Murray, himself a veteran of the Army, said it also meant something to him to be able to help “our veterans, especially in these times when there is so much need.”
It is the Operation Stand Down organization that makes it all work, Murray noted. “They run a really great show and when it is all done you won’t even know that they were here,” he said.
David Eastwood of Woonsocket, a veteran of the Navy and the National Guard with 10 years of service, said he liked visiting the encampment because of connections he makes with fellow veterans.
“You can talk to a complete stranger when you get here and end up with a new friend for the rest of the weekend,” he said.
Stephen Wyatt of Providence, an Army veteran, said this weekend will be the sixth Operation Stand Down encampment that he has attended. “Every time I come here, I take away something,” Wyatt said.
There were even a few older veterans at the camp on Friday like Leroy D. Cooper of Providence, a former Army Engineers member who spent time building roads near the 38th Parallel after the Korean War ended. “I still think about it a lot and I look at the newspaper everyday and listen to the news,” Cooper said while noting he is concerned about the recent events in the Korean peninsula. “It is a critical thing and people don’t know what is going on,” he said. Cooper was glad he could stop in at the camp just for the day, see some fellow veterans and also have a nice meal. “I think that everything they do here for the veterans is wonderful,” he said.
Again this year, Gov. Raimondo worked the serving line for lunch and helped to fill the veterans’ plates along with the rest of the state and federal officials attending.
“It is an honor to be able to serve lunch to people who have served their nation and it is the least we can do,” Raimondo said. “No veteran who served their country should ever go hungry and I am glad to be able to support Operation Stand Down,” she said.
Raimondo said she talked to many of the veterans passing her station, ladling out roasted chicken prepared by Johnson & Wales University chefs, and received many positive reactions. “They love their country and they are also so grateful for this weekend,” she said.
Cicilline said the weekend allowed Rhode Islanders to say thank you to veterans in a way that also assists them with their needs. The list of available services can help the veterans address any issue they may be facing and provide take away connections to support services that can help in the future, he noted.
Although it may not be possible to “fully repay the men and women who have served the country,” Cicilline said it is important to make sure that they have all the resources needed to live their lives. “We need to support them in the same way that we respect their service and honor their service,” he said.
Sen. Reed credited Dequattro with coming up with a concept that puts all the services veterans need in one location for a weekend.
“You can have people who are in between housing, people who are facing other issues and there are people who have claims in for VA benefits and need help and assistance,” Reed said. “This is not only a compassionate outreach to veterans but also a very effective outreach to veterans,” Reed said while noting the number longtime volunteers involved with the encampment.
Kasim Yarn, Rhode Island’s Director of Veterans Affairs, said he saw Operation Stand Down as an indication of the very best part of Rhode Island as a whole. “This is the epitome of who we are,” he said. “It is Rhode Islanders helping Rhode Islanders, and the entire state, all its agencies, has come out to support our veterans,” he said.
Mike Heroux of Woonsocket, president of the St. Joseph Veterans Association and a volunteer with the meal program, said he was surprised by how many people were showing up at the encampment on Friday. “It is an outstanding event and it is all run by volunteers,” he said.
Another Rhode Island veteran, John Cianci, now a member of the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross, recalled when Operation Stand Down was first started by Dequattro and his fellow veterans while he was serving with the Rhode Island National Guard.
“This has become one of the best if not the best operations of its kind in the country,” Cianci said. “And now after 25 years, when you look at what they are doing here, it is phenomenal,” he said.
Military boots representing the sacrifices of Rhode Island soldiers, including Pawtucket’s Kyle Coutu, are arranged on the grounds of Diamond Hill Park on Friday, as the park hosted the 25th annual Operation Stand Down weekend.
Korean War veteran Leroy D. Cooper, right, is served lunch by Gov. Gina Raimondo, left, along with Cumberland Mayor Bill Murray and RI Veterans Affairs Director Kasim Yarn.
U.S. Army veteran Don Mather voices concerns to Gov. Gina Raimondo.