Arroyo Grande resident Steve Dudich sat against a wall of the San Luis Obispo Veterans Memorial Building on Saturday, sandwiched between Grizzly Youth Academy cadets Kayla Perez and Janice Violanteo. The young cadets listened intently as the Vietnam veteran told his story.
The cadets were there as volunteers at the second annual San Luis Obispo County Veterans Stand Down, services are provided to veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Dudich, 68, said he left high school in 1962 and, even though he was underage, managed to enlist in the Marine Corps. He served in Vietnam, where he spent the last two of his four years as a forward observer for naval gunfire and air strikes.
Dudich returned to the United States in 1966, landing in San Francisco. He wore his Marine Corps uniform and craved a beer but, at age 20, he wasn’t yet of legal age.
Happily, Dudich said, a stranger noticed his uniform and bought him a drink.
“He got a draft beer,” Dudich recalled. “Then he turned around, took the beer and threw it all over my uniform and in my face. And that’s how I arrived back in America.”
He said he was just one of many Vietnam veterans who faced rejection on their homecoming.
“We weren’t accepted by society, we weren’t accepted by the Veterans Affairs — we were pretty much just thrown out there,” Dudich said.
Exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange while deployed damaged his health and, according to Dudich, also contaminated his wife and children.
Memories of air strikes have kept him from flying, he said, and he has never returned to his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
He has grieved for his two best friends, one of whom died in combat, while the other killed himself after returning home.
But nearly 50 years have passed since Dudich’s service in Vietnam ended, during which America has healed, he said, and the Stand Down is evidence of that.
“I sure hope this is happening all over the United States,” Dudich said. “I see these veterans and I talk to them, and this blesses our souls and who we are at our core.”
The two-day event began Friday and provided haircuts, clean clothes, showers, pet services, medical attention and community building to veterans from San Luis Obispo County.
More than 40 service providers gathered in the manner of a wartime “stand down,” during which combat units find rest and aid.
Dudich, who came as a volunteer with the Vietnam Veterans of America, ended up getting help himself. Shortly after his arrival, the cadets noticed he was shaking and directed him to the medical tent, where he was told he is suffering from diabetes — something he had suspected, but had not previously been told, Dudich said.
In 2013, the Stand Down lasted 24 hours, assisting 114 veterans, according to Dana Cummings, San Luis Obispo County Veterans Services officer. This year, it lasted 48 hours, helping approximately 200 veterans.
There are believed to be about 271 homeless veterans and 1,100 veterans at risk of homelessness in the county.
“There’s always more to do,” Cummings said. “I’m sad to say it’ll never be enough, but we’re trying to make a dent.”
Congresswoman Lois Capps attended the event Saturday to show her support.
“The minute I walked up,” Capps said, “I met a vet on his way out who spent the morning here. He said, ‘I didn’t know so many people in San Luis Obispo County were here to help me.’ ”
Capps also thanked the attending veterans for their service.
“This tells me this community, San Luis Obispo, the entire county values what you did on behalf of our country,” she said.