PLEASANTON -- Riley Berry, 60, sat on his cot and looked out from his tent to the mountains that border the west side of Pleasanton.
"They bring back memories of Monkey Mountain," he said with a heavy sigh, thinking of Vietnam. Berry, who shipped out across the Atlantic Ocean when he was only 19 to serve with the Army in Vietnam, is one of 390 war veterans attending the fifth East Bay Stand Down in Pleasanton this week.
The biennial event, which began Thursday and runs through Sunday afternoon, will provide nearly every service imaginable for veterans, from legal assistance to teeth cleaning to hair cuts.
Every available cot is filled, as usual, at this year's stand down, Those who are brought to the event are not necessarily homeless, but all are in great need of the services provided and must be considered eligible by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
It takes between $600,000 to $700,000 to put on the stand down -- mostly from donations. And for those who attend, every second matters.
Berry, a Richmond resident, made the most of his Friday morning by getting in a hearty breakfast before heading for an eye exam, where he received a new pair of glasses.
After that, he picked up a new blanket for his cot, to keep him warm at night.
The tent, his cot, the mountains. All remind him of a time he has worked so hard to cope with. Berry admits that when he joined the Army and was sent over to Vietnam, it was to escape his group of friends who were heavy drug users and who mainly spent their time wandering the streets.
In Vietnam, Berry saw things he still cannot put into words. The only indication of what horrors he saw are in the tears that well up in his eyes when he asks to not have to repeat the demons he wrestles with in dealing with post traumatic stress disorder.
"I just can't (talk about it). It is a day-to-day process," he said. "I've been there. I've done that. I didn't know what the next day would bring. And I don't care what anybody says, we did not win that war."
Then there are participants at the stand down like William Harper, 53, from Oakland.
An Air Force veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, Harper was a tactical medic whose daily job was to keep wounded soldiers alive while in-flight to hospitals in places like Germany, England or even on a Navy ship not far offshore.
He said, while those who serve during any war may have some sort of anxiety, he said he had trained so hard and so long for moments where life or death hung in the balance that he has been lucky with his memories. Unlike some, he doesn't wake up sweating and screaming in the middle of the night.
"I had this switch that I could turn on and off," he said. "I could look at the person and rather than be in shock, I could look at them in the eye and say 'I am going to do whatever I have to so that you stay alive.'"
Whether its veterans who served decades ago, or current members of the military serving as volunteers, the stand down seems to give those who served their country a way to not only a way to help each other and share stories, but also a way to reinvigorate their love for their line of work.
"I saw folks here who needed much more help than I did, I felt like I was taking up a space," said Charles Boykins, a former stand down participant-turned-staff member. "I decided my first day that I wanted to help. And that is what is so great about all of this, that by day four, there is a transformation. Because all somebody needed was a little help."
Contact Katie Nelson at 925-847-2164 or follow her at Twitter.com/katienelson210.
A stand down is a temporary cessation of offensive actions; cease-fire; a truce.
For more information on the East Bay Stand Down, visit
Facts about u.s. veterans
- According to the state Department of Veteran Affairs, there are now approximately 62,628 veterans living in Alameda County. In Contra Costa County, the number is 59,826.
- There are approximately 1,865,342 veterans currently living in California, of those, 165,439 are females. At the East Bay Stand Down, there were 21 women in attendance.
- As of 2012, there are approximately 1,699,903 male veterans in California. There were 353 men in attendance at the East Bay Stand Down.
- According to Housing California, a nonprofit organization, about 26 percent of all the homeless in California are veterans. California has the highest number of homeless veterans in the country, according to the organization.
Source: California Department of Veterans Affairs and Housing California