|Residents of one of Operation Stand Down’s seven transitional houses gather on the front porch after a house meeting. Ten veterans live in this house, where they receive case management services and the structure and support they need to get back on their feet following bouts of homelessness or illness. Residents can live in one of the houses for up to two years while they regain stability and prepare to live independently. Photos by Theresa Laurence
As a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Army National Guard, Deacon John Krenson was responsible for the well-being of his soldiers in many tense situations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, on the cusp of retirement from the Guard, he is serving soldiers in a new way, as executive director of Operation Stand Down Tennessee, a unique local non-profit organization that offers a wide range of services to honorably discharged veterans and their families.
When the position with Operation Stand Down became available last spring, Deacon Krenson saw it as “an opportunity that I couldn’t ignore.” Deacon Krenson, who serves at Christ the King Church in Nashville, said the position “fused together everything that my life has been about,” providing the perfect synthesis for his experience in the military, the diaconate, and the business world.
While Deacon Krenson’s military role “was all about protecting,” his role at Operation Stand Down “is about reconciliation and healing.” At home in Nashville, Deacon Krenson, a husband and father of two teenagers, is no longer on guard against enemy combatants. Instead, he oversees Operation Stand Down’s network of services designed to help veterans after they return from war, bearing wounds both visible and invisible.
Operation Stand Down serves veterans from all backgrounds, with a particular focus on those who are homeless or failing to thrive due to addiction, physical or behavioral issues. Discharged from the regimented structure and built-in brotherhood of the military, the vets seeking help at Operation Stand Down have struggled on and off, for years, or even decades, after leaving active duty. Through Operation Stand Down, they are re-connected with a holistic support system that helps them make concrete changes and once again become healthy and self-sustaining.
Part of the healing process happens in a nondescript back room at the agency’s headquarters, beyond a narrow maze of cubicle offices, where veterans gather for weekly “Soul Care” meetings. “There is a spiritual component to soldiers’ resiliency and we recognize that at Stand Down,” Deacon Krenson said. Operation Stand Down is a secular organization, but does offer opportunities for spiritual growth.
|Deacon John Krenson, who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Army National Guard, is now executive director of Operation Stand Down Tennessee, a local organization that provides a wide range of services to honorably discharged veterans. Here, he congratulates Bobby King for completing the transitional housing program, finding a job and moving out on his own.
“I am a soul and I have a body,” Soul Care leader and Vietnam veteran Larry Malone calls out. “I am a soul and I have a body,” the men repeat. After a series of call and response affirmations, the men quiet down and listen to Scripture passages and reflections chosen by Malone and his co-leader Dr. Terry Smith, a life coach and counselor.
“We’re trying to address the soul here,” said Malone. “We have systems in place like the VA that can address the physical and psychological ailments. But there’s another place you can be wounded and those systems can’t get at that,” said Malone. “We can be a bridge to that place.”
Malone, a bomber pilot during the Vietnam War, knows how deep those spiritual wounds can run. After completing numerous missions, dropping bombs on untold numbers of Vietnamese combatants and civilians alike, “I couldn’t do it anymore, and I quit. … It ripped a hole in my soul,” abandoning the identity that he had for so long.
Completing missions as he was trained to do in the military, but with a lack of moral clarity that satisfied his own conscience, troubled Malone to his core. It wasn’t until years later, with the help of a counselor, that Malone finally addressed his internal struggles and forgave himself.
Acting with a lack of moral clarity amidst the fog of war can cause a wound “that takes residence in your soul and makes you hopeless. … When utter hopelessness sets in, suicide looks good,” Malone said, in a tone that implies he knows exactly what he’s talking about.
The spike in veterans’ suicides since 9/11, now surpassing combat deaths, is alarming to Malone, and he wants to do whatever he can to offer peace to vets struggling with suicidal thoughts or lack of identity and direction.
Together every week, Malone and Smith want to affirm the vets that they are loved and they have a purpose in life. “People must decide they’re worth fighting for,” said Smith. “When a person takes ownership of their life,” that’s when they can start to heal and move forward, he said.
Vietnam veteran Craig Bothwell, his arms covered in tattoos, including one that says “Fight or Die,” flips through his bible during the Soul Care meeting. Facing a third round of leukemia, Bothwell, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and is a participant in Operation Stand Down’s transitional housing program, finds solace in the Soul Care meetings. “I need reinforcement of this type of thing,” he said.
The weekly meetings end with participants, many of whom are Bothwell’s housemates, joining hands for a final prayer before going about their days. Among the men in the circle are Marine Corps veteran Tony Manderson and Navy veteran Mark Evans.
Structure and purpose
When Manderson arrived at Operation Stand Down last October he was divorced, unemployed and temporarily staying with a friend, a fellow Marine he served with in Iraq. “He’s the one who told me about it,” Manderson said. “I didn’t know Stand Down existed.”
While the organization has been around for 23 years, and has 39 full-time staff members, it is still not well known in the community. “Most people are surprised with how deep we are,” said Deacon Krenson.
|Craig Bothwell, a Vietnam veteran, flips through a bible during a Soul Care meeting, offered every week at Operation Stand Down Tennessee headquarters in Nashville. While the meetings are non-sectarian, they encourage reliance on a higher power, and spiritual growth.
Manderson, who suffers from PTSD, came in to the Stand Down office on a Monday morning, lacking direction and essentially homeless, “looking for a regular life again, a good job and a place of my own.”
Manderson was immediately identified as a good candidate for the transitional housing program, which provides housing and support for veterans while they regain control of their lives. He quickly moved into one of Stand Down’s seven transitional houses in Nashville.
All 42 residents who live in one of the houses are given case management services and must follow a strict set of guidelines to stay in the house. “It’s important to have structure after being in the military all these years,” said Manderson, who enlisted after graduating from high school in Fayetteville, Tenn., during Operation Desert Storm, and saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Transitional housing residents must attend weekly house meetings; actively look for employment; go to at least seven support group meetings a week; contribute to household expenses; complete daily chores; be home by curfew; and adhere to a zero tolerance policy for alcohol, drugs and violence.
“Structure, that’s the hardest thing about transitioning back to civilian life,” Manderson reiterated. The structure required to live in a house with 10 men is helping Manderson regain his footing. “It works out pretty well,” he said. “I feel like I’m on a ship.”
The residents, a diverse group of veterans of different ages, races, religions, military branches and backgrounds, do have their squabbles and personality clashes, “but you work it out,” said Manderson, who was recently appointed assistant house manager.
The house can even be an incubator for unlikely friendships. “There is camaraderie with other guys in the house,” he said.
Manderson, who was raised Southern Baptist in rural Tennessee, and his roommate Mark Evans, an African-American who grew up in a Catholic family in the Chicago suburbs, have a bond cemented by their common background of military service. “Vets can relate to other vets,” Evans said.
When Evans arrived at Operation Stand Down last spring he was unemployed and living in his car. A member of a submarine fleet during the Cold War era, Evans was honorably discharged and went to college on the GI Bill, graduating in 1986. “That gave my mother bragging rights,” he said, being the first of his seven siblings to graduate college.
Evans had steady employment until he suffered a brain aneurysm and a series of strokes. “I became ill and things spiraled down after that,” he said. He came to Nashville about a year ago to live with his brother, but when his brother had to move, Evans had nowhere else to go.
He sought refuge at Matthew 25, a shelter that helps homeless men, especially veterans, get back on their feet. From there, he heard about Operation Stand Down, and got a spot in the agency’s Transitional Housing Program.
Evans now rides his bike to work most days at a Circle K gas station near the house, and although the wages are low, he’s hoping it’s a stepping stone to something better. “I’ve almost been hired a couple of times, but there’s a lot of competition out there,” said Evans, who attends St. Edward Church.
Still, he’s thankful for the roof over his head that Operation Stand Down provides. “They’re doing more than family or friends could have done for me,” he said. “Who else is doing anything? Who else is even trying?”
‘One stop shop’
While presidential candidates and politicians at all levels frequently tout their support for veterans and make promises to fix the overburdened VA system, there are very few organizations on the ground providing the wide array of service to veterans like Operation Stand Down. “We’re very unique,” said Deacon Krenson, “to have a permanent office with this range of services.”
|Veteran Jonathan Gibson, standing, makes an impassioned point during a house meeting at one of Operation Stand Down’s transitional houses. Ten veterans live in this house and meet every Sunday night with other members of the household and their case manager, Scott Easterling, center, to work through house conflicts and plan for the week ahead.
With the largest and fastest growing veterans’ charity, the Wounded Warrior Project, recently under fire for financial mismanagement and lavish employee spending, Deacon Krenson points out that Operation Stand Down’s history is deep and its finances are in order. “Eighty-seven cents of every dollar goes to veterans programs,” he said.
Operation Stand Down, the only Veteran Service Center in Tennessee recognized by the U.S. Veterans Administration, has three major focus areas: transitional housing, employment services, and the 12th Avenue Thrift Store. The employment services program offers help with job readiness, resume` preparation, interview skills and employment searches. The thrift store, located next door to the service center, acts as a job-training program for veterans who work there, and supplies eligible clients with clothing at no cost. It also sells clothing and household items to the public.
The Operation Stand Down Service Center offers help with everything from food stamps to military records retrieval. Vets can get help properly filling out VA paperwork, which “can save them a huge amount of time,” in accessing their benefits, said Deacon Krenson. “Our goal is to be a one-stop shop for veterans,” he said. “No one walks away without getting some form of help.”
Operation Stand Down began in Nashville in 1993 when a coalition of volunteers and organizers came together to assist Nashville’s homeless veteran population through a series of pop-up weekend events. In 1999, its board of directors elected to become a full-time agency, and it’s been growing ever since. In 2015, Operation Stand Down served more than 1,900 men and women veterans and opened a permanent satellite office in Clarksville. “We’re building a really good model that can be replicated” around the country, Deacon Krenson said.
Ministry in motion
Historically, Operation Stand Down has focused on homeless veterans, and the majority of its funding, which comes through federal grants, is restricted to serving homeless veterans. One of Deacon Krenson’s jobs is to expand funding sources so the agency can reach out to more people.
“The face of the veteran is changing,” he said. Deacon Krenson anticipates a coming paradigm shift towards younger and more women vets needing services. “The challenge is to become more accessible and more relevant” to veterans, especially women, he said. Right now, women account for a small percentage of Operation Stand Down’s client base. Only seven out of 42 beds in the transitional houses are currently occupied by women.
Deacon Krenson wants veterans to get connected with Operation Stand Down before they become homeless. “We’re seeing fewer chronically homeless vets, but more who are at risk of economic crisis,” Deacon Krenson said. “We want to make vets are aware of us on the front end of a crisis point.”
Veterans can find themselves in crisis situations “when they become isolated and have no sense of purpose,” Deacon Krenson said. “They begin to fall through the cracks.”
At whatever point they come to Operation Stand Down, veterans “don’t feel ashamed,” Deacon Krenson said. “They are reminded of their value.”
Operation Stand Down works to build relationships with local employers and to prepare its clients for stable employment through training and real world work experience. The 12th Avenue Thrift Store, where Manderson was recently hired, is one way veterans can get some fresh work experience under their belts.
“Our clients are tremendous resources … they just need that catalyst to be connected back to the community,” Deacon Krenson said.
Veterans Manderson and Evans say employers can be wary of hiring veterans because of concerns about how post-traumatic stress disorder may affect their job performance. “It can be the kiss of death” to identify as a veteran on job applications, Evans said.
Building stronger relationships with potential employers and community partners is a goal of Deacon Krenson’s. He tries to increase awareness of Operation Stand Down through speaking engagements with educational, civic and religious groups, like the Rotary Club and Nashville Catholic Business League.
When he’s not out in the community, Deacon Krenson aims to have “as much client interaction as possible” at the service center. He tries to make clients feel welcome whenever he encounters them, whether it’s grabbing coffee in the front waiting area, handing out achievement medals, sitting in on a prayer meeting, or anything in between.
Because of his military background, Deacon Krenson can instantly relate to the veterans seeking help at Operation Stand Down. Because of his role as a deacon, he is concerned not only about meeting their immediate needs, but also their deeper, sometimes unspoken needs. “I minister all the time even though I’m not on the altar,” he said.