Clayton officials, vet work to help county veterans in need

Terry Smithson left the army nearly four decades ago but the Clayton County vet is still trying to look out for his fellow soldiers.

The 65-year-old former helicopter pilot has become a familiar face among vets in Clayton, especially the down-and-out. Many of those he comes in contact with are suffering from drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. He brings food to them on Friday nights from the American Legion Post 258, where he’s the chaplain. Calls to the Legion from vets struggling to save their home or feed their family are usually routed to him. Many are unaware of the services available to them or have no idea where to turn for services. Many often have to go Stockbridge or Atlanta for help.

There also are at least a half dozen vet-related groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion in Clayton but they don’t have central clearinghouse linking their efforts.

The county commission took steps this month to fix that by creating a Veterans Advisory Board, which is expected to be in place by August. Details about the board’s function - who sits on the board, what their duties will be - are being ironed out. The board would conceivably help vets find help for a wide-range of issues such as transitioning to civilian life, finding health care services, mental illness and homelessness.

“We want to make sure we’re doing all we can for vets in Clayton,” Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said. “We want to make sure we’re addressing their needs and providing them with a better quality of life.” Turner noted that his father served in the army for 30 years with tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam.

“This is a very important project to me. Our veterans are invaluable to us. They need better treatment than the way they have been treated in the past,” he said, citing widespread mismanagement within the federal Veterans Affairs department and patient mistreatment at VA facilities.

Turner said he’s especially concerned about the homelessness among vets.

“How can you have people who gave unselfishly and defended this country living on the streets?”

Clayton is home to about 20,000 military vets, that’s three-and-a-half to four times higher than the national average based on per capita, according to David Walker, adjutant for American Legion Post 258 in Clayton County.

“This advisory board would have the opportuntity to hear from several veterans organization,” Walker said. “Rather than coming in piecemeal, this advisory council will be a central gathering point for information for veterans looking for various services.”

The county is sandwiched between two former military bases - Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem. Before they closed in 2011, the bases drew a large number of service members to the area, Walker said. After they closed, many military people stayed in the area, Walker said.

Clayton isn’t the only county trying to address veterans’ problems.

On Tuesday , Cobb County opened its Military Family Resource Center, which is expected to be a major resource for vets in north Georgia.

Vets make up about 13 percent of the nation’s homeless population, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Most are men who are single and suffering from mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse or a combination of those problems, the agency notes.

Smithson says the advisory board will be a much-needed resource.

There are at least three homeless camps that he knows of in Clayton. Seven out of 10 of the people in the camps are vets, he said. Smithson said he has urged them to take advantage of the services available to them. But many balk at the idea.

“I’m noticing more and more (homeless) are veterans. We’ve got a drug abuse program and a domestic violence shelter (in Clayton). It’s sad they don’t have a homeless shelter in Clayton,” said Smithson who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. “We’re fighting a different war now. They’re coming back (more) mentally damaged.”

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