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From Battles to Benefits: Stand Down's Commitment to Helping Veterans

haircut, Veterans, homeless, omaha
A Veteran receives a complimentary haircut.

OMAHA, Neb. – VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System (VANWIHCS) joined forces with the University of Nebraska Omaha and other community partners Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, when it hosted its annual Veteran Stand Down at UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center.

The word “Stand Down” draws inspiration from the military concept of giving Soldiers rest and resources to recharge between battles.  

The Omaha event aimed to provide services and support to Veterans experiencing homelessness or housing instability. The Stand Down brings together various organizations from the community to connect Veterans with vital resources, including healthcare, housing assistance, legal aid, and more.

The event saw an impressive turnout, with more than 80 Veterans in attendance. 

Cynthia Pommells, a voluntary service specialist at the Omaha VA Medical Center, is at the heart of the effort. Pommells has been involved for more than a decade, starting as a volunteer, and now is one of the event organizers, helping recruit volunteers and coordinate donated items. 

She said the event is designed with one primary mission: Helping Veterans who need it the most. "Our main goal is to make sure we can reach these Veterans and that they're not thinking there's nobody to help them," said Pommells.

"The event aims to get our Veterans the services they need to get their eyes checked, their feet checked, and to make sure they know what benefits they're eligible for," she added. 

On the day of the event, the Omaha community witnessed a remarkable display of unity as volunteers from various walks of life came together to support Stand Down's mission. Alex Rainey, a student at Xenon Academy barber school, was among the many volunteers who generously provided free haircuts for the Veterans. 

Rainey's motivation to assist Veterans stems from his personal connection: his brother is a Navy Veteran. Using his hair clippers, Rainey said he felt the profound impact of Stand Down firsthand while sharing an experience that warmed his heart. 

“One gentleman who had served in Vietnam said he already felt younger just from getting his hair buzzed off,” said Rainey. “It was awesome to see how good a simple haircut can make someone feel." 

Another volunteer, Matt Diggle, an accounting manager from Nebraska Furniture Mart, was inspired to contribute his time and effort to Stand Down. As a Marine Corps Veteran, Diggle described his experience with Stand Down as "mind-blowing and awesome" due to its ability to address the diverse needs of Veterans. 

Diggle's commitment extended beyond his personal involvement as he brought 50 fellow NFM employees to volunteer. He said the team wanted to let Veterans know that they’re not alone. “You're not a statistic; you're not a number. You've paid and done so much for our country; let us do something for you," Diggle said.

For Diggle, Stand Down is of utmost importance due to the wide range of needs it addresses for Veterans.

"They check eligibility for benefits, get medical care, help with clothes and haircuts - it's restoring their dignity," he said. Volunteering added Diggle, is a way of giving back to his fellow brothers and sisters who sacrificed for the country. 

According to Pommells, the Omaha Veterans Stand Down has seen remarkable growth. She reminisced about its humble beginnings at the local civic center before relocating to area colleges and eventually the student center at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. 

"Usually, we don't have problems finding space. Most places are happy to help if they have room," Pommells said. 

Last year, after a two-year pause caused by the COVID pandemic, the Stand Down served around 50 Veterans. This year’s growth shows that there is still a need within the community to assist those Veterans who may be struggling. 

Pommells remains steadfast in her dedication to Stand Down's mission, ensuring no one falls through the cracks. She is so grateful to volunteers like Rainey and Diggle, who generously donate their time and effort.

"It's important for our Veterans to know that people in the community care about them and want to say thank you for their service," Pommells said.