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Helping homeless vets make a U-turn

Rescue mission supports

The veteran residents of the Tacoma Rescue Mission take pride in the way they maintain their shared sleeping room. Photo credit: Joan Brown

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Despite job fairs and other support, many Puget Sound military who have gone from one deployment to another to "instant" jobless civilian status would have no place to go without recovery shelters like the Veterans Resource Center. There, within the Tacoma Rescue Mission, veterans find a clean, safe and orderly place in which to eat and sleep while receiving help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), enrolling in school and preparing themselves for a new profession. But none of this is a free ride.

Retired Navy Capt. Denny Sapp, who helped found this and other facilities, estimates more than 150 vets have come through the center in the little over two years it's been operational. The agreement that allows veterans to stay requires random urine analysis and 20 hours of weekly volunteer work at the mission. Veterans can stay for up to 90 days while working with the VA or Supportive Services for Veterans' Families (SSVF), or while getting VA medical treatment. The good news is that many of these veterans succeed in making a comeback - and they then go on to "pay it forward."

Gilbert is one of those successes.  Only 17 years old when he decided to join the Air Force, he soon entered Special Operations training, deployed all over the world, and found himself ever on guard for possible danger, even off duty - one of the symptoms of the mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)  that he now realizes he had.

"For a long time I couldn't sit with others in a room unless I was seated in a corner, facing the exit," he said.

Eventually, Gil left the Air Force to try to gain more stability and control in his life. He was immediately accepted into the Miami police force. There, he once again encountered things he found difficult to see.

He had married and had a 10-year-old son by the time he decided to retire and move to the West Coast, where his wife was from. Gilbert opted to forego the lump sum retirement his wife wanted him to take, choosing instead to wait until age 55 to begin receiving allotments from the Miami police. Shortly after the move, a friend asked Gil to come to Portland to help him.

"When I got back, the house was empty, the bank accounts were empty, my wife was gone and my son was gone," he said, overcome with emotion.

All that was left in the bank was the $25 the bank withheld due to the fact it was a joint account and required dual consent. All that was left at home was a note that read, "You're not the man I married twenty years ago."

Totally devastated, "I decided to go out into the woods and let the woods do me in because my religious upbringing didn't allow suicide," he said. "I lived there a couple of months. Then someone brought me in to the mission and gave me a place to lay my head, even though it was a mat on the floor for a while."

He was so completely filled with anger that one of the kitchen guys took Gil under his wing. "You want to take out your frustrations," he told him, "come wash pots and pans."

Next, Gilbert learned to prepare food and became an intern in the Tacoma Rescue Mission kitchen and at two other shelters. Eventually, he returned to the mission and began work in the emergency service center called "the booth." There, he takes phone calls, assigns beds at night, and does "everything you can think of" from 2 to 10 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Always ready to listen, he is willing to open up and counsel others, just as others have helped him.

Veteran residents take pride in the way they maintain the sleeping room they share. At the end of the day, they clear the chairs, mop the floors, and set up the floor mats between the beds to get the room ready for the night. There's a homey atmosphere to the pictures and banners hung on the walls and a clear sense of congeniality.

Gil credits the shelter Tacoma Rescue Mission manager, Luis (last name omitted), a longtime volunteer who himself spent 26 years in Army Special Forces, with leading him back to God and helping with healing. Gil has just completed a course in ministry, and when he leaves the mission center this fall to move to his own place, he plans to continue his work helping people so he can be there for others as they have been for him.                                                                                                                        

"Being in the booth, I have been able to help guys out. It's made me feel useful again because, when everything happened, I lost the ability to feel like I had anything to give," he said."This is a place that helps people that are broken, a place where you can come and get help to put the pieces back together again."

Gilbert clearly has his own pieces squarely back in place.

For more information, visit or call the Veterans Resource Center office at 253.383.4493. You can also visit the booth at the Tacoma Rescue Mission and ask for the veteran's representative.

The mission conducts a drive for clothing and blankets at the Tacoma Mall just before Christmas each year. Bags of clothing and donations for bus fares are always welcome at the warehouse to the right of the Tacoma Rescue Mission, 425 South Tacoma Way.

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