War beat up Scot Pondelick inside and out.
From his ligament-torn ankles to his separated shoulders, he hurts all the time. He has degenerative disc disease, and walks gingerly with a cane.
In three long, separate tours of duty in Iraq, the Auburn man, a member of a strategic U.S. Army bomb squad, the 731st EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Company, faced life-and-death situations almost daily.
He battles depression, anxiety and anger.
“They tell me I will be in a wheelchair when I’m 45,” said Pondelick, 30.
His story is not unique. Many veterans return from the battle zone burdened with serious physical and psychological problems. While many get answers and the help they need, other do not and tumble into a black pit of despair.
Which is where Pondelick and some of his friends are determined to make a difference – as veterans helping veterans.
For the third consecutive year, Pondelick and Algona’s Alfredo “Tito” Medina, a Navy veteran, are organizing and directing a veterans resource fair. This year’s free event, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 30 at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall at 2727 East D St., is open to past and present U.S. military personnel and their families.
More than 100 organizations, agencies and nonprofits will be there to provide resource help for veterans and their families, and in a variety of ways: VA benefits; legal and community services; homeless services; educational benefits; medical screenings and dental resources; jobs, apprenticeship, training and vocational opportunities; housing and other transition and reintegration services.
This “everything fair” has a single mission: to help veterans make direct connections to and get information about veteran-specific programs and resources.
“What makes this fair important is that it is a community driven effort,” Medina said. “If we as individuals did not make it a priority to invest our time and energy in this event, it would have been years till an agency or organization found the desire to aid in the large-scale assistance of our veterans community here in the Puget Sound.”
Pondelik expects between 1,500 and 2,000 veterans, considerably more than the first fair he and a handful of others helped establish two years ago at Green River College.
The first fair drew 500 veterans, with many making the long trip to Auburn. Last year’s event attracted 1,013 veterans and family members.
“A homeless veteran bicycled from the base of the Space Needle to the college,” Pondelick recalled at the inaugural fair. “That story is very common.
“We come across veterans all the time who have been three to six months out of the Army, and are either homeless, being evicted, divorced, whatever is going on,” he said. “There’s always issues coming up.”
Along with raising money through donations and sponsorships, Pondelick and Medina have spent thousands of dollars of their own money to keep the event free and available to veterans.
Working on behalf of veterans has become Pondelick’s calling. His injuries have rendered him 100-percent disabled.
“Unemployable,” as he puts it.
Pondelick is chairman of the King County Veterans Advisory Board and president of the National Alliance to End Veteran Suicide.
Many veterans are not getting the help they need today. Pondelick knows as much.
“I want to help out other vets, but this is a way for me not to go crazy,” Pondelick said. “Our goal is to help out the average veteran.”
“(The fair) is different because our overall endgame is to build community. You have money coming in on the federal, state, county side, and even private dollars. But all these stovepipes make it difficult for the veterans – and their family members – and the staff in these programs to know the right way to navigate these systems, or even get a simple question answered.
“We know of several agencies locally that get money to provide these types of community programs, but they don’t,” Medina continued. “This is why we are different. This project started because Scot and I wanted to really help our fellow brothers and sisters. This is the first step, build community. The next step is to advocate and lobby for better opportunities in many different venues. Having a great idea means nothing if no one either knows about it or supports it.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Alliance to End Veteran Suicide, Sea Mar, Military Veteran Solutions, the Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs, Humana, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, DAV, Tacoma Public Utilities and the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association are among the event’s sponsors.
For more information about the fair, visit theveteransresourcefair.us.