He was a young soldier with an empty duffle bag and a hard luck story.
His girlfriend left him while he was serving in Afghanistan, taking everything of theirs she could fit in her car. Their landlord took the rest.
He cleaned out their apartment and put everything she left behind in paid storage, including all his clothes. The young soldier had no idea this was happening. He was too busy 7,500 miles away in a desert looking for people who want to kill us.
When the storage rental fee went unpaid after six months, all his possessions were sold at auction to pay the bill. He had come home earlier this year to find everything he owned gone.
And now he was standing in a cramped clothing room in Building 22 at the Sepulveda VA looking a little embarrassed as he handed Wynn van Citters a voucher saying he qualified for free, used clothing because he was a low-income veteran.
It was not exactly the homecoming he expected.
“This poor man had been shafted by his girlfriend, his landlord, and the storage company while he was off serving his country,” said Wynn, who volunteers in the clothing room three days a week. “What’s wrong with that picture?”
“I wish I could tell you that was the first time I heard a story like this in the nine years I’ve been doing this, but it isn’t,” added the 82-year-old Korean War veteran, who spent four years at Treasure Island Naval Station in San Francisco in the early 1950s helping returning sailors with their discharge papers.
She still can’t shake the look on that young soldier’s face earlier this year when she wrapped her measuring tape around his waist, then measured his inseam.
“Follow me, son,” she said, marching him down cramped aisles filled with donated shirts, pants, sport coats, and suits cleaned and organized by size on the racks. “We just got in some nice clothes your size.”
Twenty minutes later, the young man walked out with a full duffle bag. That was the last time she saw him. Even though he was eligible to come back once a month, he never did. She likes to think he’s got a new girlfriend and a good job. He doesn’t need her clothing room anymore.
While Wynn sorted through a Hefty bag of garments that had just been donated, her co-worker Mort Schecter sorted out the shoe rack, which was bare of size 10 shoes.
“As soon as we get of a pair of 10s in, they’re gone,” he said. “I think every vet who comes in is a size 10.”
Mort, 92, was a tail gunner on a B-24 bomber from 1942 to 1945 in World War II, and now 70 years later, he’s still up for a good fight.
Three mornings a week he pays $5.50 for a round-trip ticket on an access van from his Northridge home to the VA in North Hills, where he works from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. In return, he gets a $7 voucher for lunch.
The VA should be sending a limo for him. It should count its sweet blessings that there are retired men and women veterans, like Mort and Wynn, who ask for nothing but do so much.
The clothing room they spend 18 hours a week in is little more than a walk-in closet — crammed with donated clothing from veterans and service clubs. They’d take more donations if they had room for them, but they don’t. The storage room down the hall is already crammed.
If they had more room and better word of mouth, the 120 low-income veterans they clothe every month would be more like 200 or even 300, Mort thinks.
“I know there are hundreds of veterans out there living hand to mouth who have no idea we exist, that they can come to their local VA and get clean, used clothing for free.”
When he’s in the cafeteria using his $7 lunch voucher, Mort’s always on the lookout for women veterans who may be eligible for the free clothing. None of them seem to know the clothing room even exists, he said.
It’s a shame because Wynn fought for years to get a women’s section, but her former boss thought it should be strictly for male veterans.
Twenty percent of the military is women, she argued, so she wanted 20 percent of the small space for them. And she finally got it.
There is a rope with a curtain on it strung across their one aisle in the back so the 18 women vets who came in last month with vouchers can try on clothing in privacy.
“Underwear, bras, panties and socks are the toughest items to get because the VA mandates they have to be new,” Wynn said. “We’re lucky to have the support of service organizations like the Jewish War Veterans and American Legion helping us out, but we could always use more.”
So, this holiday season if you’re looking for a way to say thank you to the men and women who served this country and are now living on a shoestring, think about Mort, Wynn and all the volunteers in the clothing rooms at the West LA, Long Beach and Sepulveda VA facilities.
Because you know as sure as this war on terrorism is going to last a long time, there are going to be a lot more young soldiers walking into these free clothing rooms with an empty duffle bag and a hard luck story.
To contact the VA clothing room in your area, email email@example.com.