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Where the vets go
vet center pic
Richard Edgecomb (right) chats with a Marine before the American Legion sponsored School Awards Medal Program, which recognizes elementary, middle and high school students for excellence in qualities such as scholarship, service, patriotism and leadership. - photo by PAUL ROUPE/The Journal

Before the 37,000 sq. ft. Stanislaus Veterans Center opened at 3500 Coffee Rd. in Modesto on April 21, veterans had no centralized home for the myriad services available to them.

It is the first of its kind in the state, providing a consolidated location for the county’s estimated 27,000 vets to receive assistance with everything from benefits for service related injuries to home care to transportation to and from VA hospitals.

The Veterans Center is run in cooperation with Stanislaus County, the City of Modesto and the Veterans Foundation, a non-profit organization composed of independently selected board members.

It is the city and county that coordinate the services therein, but the Veterans Center itself is the glue that holds it all together, as it furnishes the place for various military organizations such as the American Legion and VFW to gather, hold meetings and plan events.

Housed in the Center are many essential needs veterans can access. The Area Agency on Aging helps the elderly with preventative care, peer counseling and support for depression and mental health issues, as well as how to receive various types of benefits. There is also MOVE, which provides transportation to and from VA hospitals in Livermore and Palo Alto. Though the two wheelchair accessible vans only transport the physically disabled, there are plans to broaden the service to all veterans. Also present is Adult Protective Services, a program that investigates and corrects incidents of elder abuse, abandonment or neglect.

Another key component is In Home Supportive Services, which assists in a wide range of vital services that cater specifically to the homebound. This program aids, through various public and private entities such as Link 2 Care, with daily chores the frail and elderly cannot do themselves. They can include doing the laundry, making meals, maintaining personal hygiene, bathing and dressing, and even shopping for groceries or other necessities.     

In the event the Veterans Center cannot directly provide the help needed, they can steer veterans to the right place. This includes referrals for issues and inquiries including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment, home loans, alcohol and drug dependency programs, Social Security and hospitalization.   

If you happen to stroll into the lobby located to the far left of the premises from noon to 4 p.m., chances are you will run into Suzie Mihaltan, or as she amiably refers to herself, Suzie Q.

Suzie beams with infectious energy and wit, and her curly smoke-colored locks shake when she laughs or speaks with her hands, a passionate reflex induced by the happiness she gets from being an 18-year volunteer. Prior to coming to the newly remodeled Veterans Center, she worked with the Community Services Agency for 28 years, but is now proud to call this facility her second home.

“This is my M.O.!” she says jovially. “I’m very proud to be a part of this.”

Volunteers like Suzie Q infuse the newly refurbished center with a comforting, friendly atmosphere, inviting veterans from all branches to come in and explore support they likely never knew they had access to.

Another person who is proud of the result is Richard Edgecomb, the 86-year-old chairman of the Stanislaus Veterans Advisory Commission.

After joining the National Guard in 1948, he specialized in armament and missiles, and was finally discharged in 1995, at which point he devoted his energy to creating a place where veterans could get everything they needed under one roof.

Edgecomb poured his sweat and effort into opening the center because it was something he had been fervent about for a long time, and without his drive the process would likely have taken much longer, if it succeeded at all. But he wasn’t alone. The petition he started generated 6,000 signatures, compelling the city and county to look seriously at the possibility of erecting a “one-stop shop,” as Edgecomb puts it. In addition, the American Legion dropped $200,000 of their fundraising donations, and the 40 & 8 club, a branch of the Legion, chipped in another $50,000 to name the bar.

Though the seed of an idea had been planted in Edgecomb’s mind about 20 years ago, the last six were fraught with toil, lobbying to county and state officials, and endless headaches. He even dished money out of his own pocket to turn the dream into a reality, but the reward is obvious to him.

“This is a new game. There’s nothing like it anywhere,” says Edgecomb with giddy satisfaction.

When asked what makes the center special to him, he replies simply, “We have it. The facility is here. We have to figure out how to make it work for the vets without too much interruption.”

This sentiment is echoed by veteran Wardee “Gunner” Bruce, a Turlock resident, and Commissioner of the District 2 Veterans Advisory Commission, who says that the Center’s very existence is the most wonderful thing he can say about it.

“It allows vets to meet and greet, and the location makes it a lot easier for them to all gather in the same place.”  

Although the center is equipped with a spacious banquet hall, built in bar with taps of Budweiser, Bud Light, Shock Top and 805, and several classrooms outfitted with updated technology including digital projectors and a Skype-like system that can broadcast meetings all over the U.S. via an address system, the fact that it is here at all is the true blessing.

Under construction now is a computer lab wired for internet access where vets can come for job placement assistance, but there is no timeline for when it will be completed.

Edgecomb knows that the Veterans Center’s presence can make all the difference in the world to veterans who otherwise would have nowhere else to go for guidance.

He also points out that a few more amenities would be nice, “like a lounge, a TV room, a library and a game room.”

But for now, the Stanislaus Veterans Center is doing wonders just as it is.