In A Small Town, Veterans Provide A Big Service To Their Peers

Dec 21, 2016
Originally published on December 28, 2016 1:19 pm

When Donald Trump won the presidential election, he made a pledge to every citizen: that he would be president for all Americans. In the weeks before Trump's inauguration, we're going to hear about some of the communities that make up this nation, from the people who know them best, in our series Finding America.

Overseeing care for military veterans will be one of Donald Trump's biggest responsibilities as president. In Watertown, N.Y., home of Fort Drum and the Army's 10th Mountain Division, veterans visit the VETS Peer to Peer Outreach Center for support.

Veterans Tim Cryster and Dave Robertson lead a team at the center that helps other veterans. They provide food, clothing, help navigating veterans' benefits and, sometimes, an ear for veterans who need to talk.

Cryster says the center offers an experience that is "reliably unique" compared with what most veterans face when they look for support. He says they rewrite the mission every time a new person walks through the door.

"Veterans don't ask for help," Cryster says. "They're less likely, I think they're almost two times more likely to not ask for help even when they need it. But when they do, they'll let go. So you grab on to their thing, and they say, 'OK, you've got me.' And I say, 'Roger, I've got you.' "

Use the audio link above to hear the full story.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the weeks leading up to Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, we're visiting some of the communities that make up the country he will lead. The series is called Finding America.

Overseeing care for military veterans will be one of Trump's big responsibilities as president. To get a glimpse at some of the challenges facing veterans, we're going to Watertown, N.Y. It's the home of Fort Drum and the Army's 10th Mountain Division. The VETS Peer to Peer Outreach Center sits on Watertown's main square.

TIM CRYSTER: This street is actually kind of stark. There aren't very many trees. The buildings are kind of 1910, so they're all kind of uniformly flat all the way across the front. It's not exactly the prettiest building in the world.

SHAPIRO: That's Tim Cryster. Inside the building, he and Dave Robertson, both veterans, lead a team that helps other veterans. They provide food, clothing, help navigating veterans' benefits. And sometimes they just provide someone to talk to. Producer Meredith Turk recorded Cryster and his team at the center just before Thanksgiving.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Blah, blah, blah, long story short...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...I'm just going to let you know...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hi, Smiley (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...When I see DSS, I'll call a (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: This is Dave. He is my senior peer mentor for the VETS Peer to Peer Outreach Center.

DAVE ROBERTSON: Our philosophy in this shop is we don't care about what your discharge papers say. You wore a uniform, you've got a home here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Oh, it's army coffee - one cup, and I'm shaking.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Unintelligible) won't even drink this coffee.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: You put a spoon in it, it sticks straight up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It'll grow hair on your toenails.

CRYSTER: Maybe all you really need is a cup of coffee and somebody to say, hey, how's your day going? This is so reliably unique is what this place is. This is the exact 180 degrees from what it is that most people think solves the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: But it's not. It's...

ROBERTSON: We don't go about it by sitting there with a clipboard and looking at you like this where I'm sitting there - uh huh, and how does that make you feel today? Well, I think you should do this. No, I'm going to sit back just like I'm doing right here, and I'm going to be like, all right. We can stare at each other for an hour. I don't care.

What we're going to have for Thanksgiving - well, we got our turkey in there right now. We're going to have three for Saturday.

Hello - nothing, just checking to make sure your tail end is alive. You ain't been around the shop in a couple days.

CRYSTER: Our successes are exactly what they are. We do not have suicides, and the reason is because we don't write the mission. Our mission is complete flexibility, and our mission is rewritten every single time somebody comes through the door.

ROBERTSON: We're having a Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday. Why don't you bring yourself and the familia out?

CRYSTER: Veterans don't ask for help. They're less likely - I think they're almost two times more likely to not ask for help, even when they need it. But when they do, they'll let go. So you grab onto their thing, and they say OK, you've got me. And you say, Roger, I've got you - better not let go. And he might be a great big boy with a great big bunch of problems. Don't let go. When do you let go? He lets go when he turns around and says, I've got it; you can let go.

ROBERTSON: All righty. All right, Brother. He still needs new sneakers, new undergarments. Hygiene products he doesn't need.

CRYSTER: Warm, safe, clean, dry, healthy, fed and free is the No. 1 thing. If everybody comes through this door, you - they have to know that it's there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: OK, but everybody's in agreement, right? This is a priority over food.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: OK, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: It's not (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: OK, I think we'll be OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: All right. I love you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: Yeah, we love you, too, Howie (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Nice meeting you guys. We'll keep in touch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #13: He nearly fell outside.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #14: It takes forever to get out of here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #15: Yup, that door won't close.

CRYSTER: This is just a - this is a hoot every day. Then you go home, and you start over in the morning. And you do it all in reverse. Sit down at the desk, and let the mayhem start.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #16: Lights out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #17: Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #18: Hey, now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #16: Lights out.

SHAPIRO: That was Tim Cryster at the VETS Peer to Peer Outreach Center in Watertown, N.Y. The story was produced by Meredith Turk. It comes to us from Localore: Finding America, a national production of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio. You can find more stories in the series at NPR and at Finding America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.