Debbie Modesitt was in the Vets Helping Vets HQ office when she got the call. Northwest Indian Veterans Association of Oregon was disbanding and had to distribute its resources to other nonprofits. Did Vets Helping Vets want a van?
The answer: Yes. Yes, it did.
“I’m a Christian woman and I believe God provides and he did,” said Pat Mastenbrook, operations manager for Vets Helping Vets.
As it turned out, Mastenbrook was out of town when the call came to Modesitt, the group's treasurer, but word traveled fast.
As for Modesitt, she also was excited about another part of the donation: “I stood up and said, ‘We’re getting flags!'” (American flags were included in the offer.) “I got that out and then called Pat because it was so unexpected."
The 2016 Ford van came at just the right time because Vets Helping Vets had received another from a man in Illinois who had a question: Did the group ever travel with its Wall of Honor outside of Oregon?
The wall includes the names of service members who have been killed in combat since Sept. 11, 2001 and Vets Helping Vets, a group that helps veterans deal with the red tape of applying for benefits, has towed the wall locally with personal vehicles since 2014.
“We started writing to car companies,” Mastenbrook said, seeking donations for a vehicle that could be used to tow the wall to Illinois. But the group didn't get any replies.
Then, the Northwest Indian Veterans Association called.
“They asked if we could take it in two weeks,” Modesitt said. “Then they said they could come at the end of the week.”
Vets Helping Vets took possession of the van last week but has yet to register it so it’s parked for now — at Mom’s place.
"Mom" is Juanita Kuhns, and it’s fitting for the van to be in her driveway since Vets Helping Vets started at her kitchen table.
“Her husband Victor started this and he used to see veterans one at a time at the house,” Modesitt said.
Vets Helping Vets now operates out of a storefront at 237 Third Ave. SW and hosts a variety of events throughout the year, including a picnic planned for Aug. 17. Its main mission, however, remains helping veterans and training volunteers to become advocates for veterans who may not know they’re eligible for benefits.
Part of helping local veterans is raising awareness that Vets Helping Vets exists and the Wall of Honor, Mastenbrook said, plays a big role in doing so.
“We had the wall out one time and this older woman is standing there and tears are streaming down and I thought, ‘Oh, OK, I’m going to do this.’ And I walked over and asked if she was OK,” Mastenbrook said. “She said 'yes' and I asked her if someone she knew had served and she said ‘Yes, but he won’t be up there.’ He committed suicide a few days after coming back.”
Mastenbrook said that in traveling around the state with the wall, the group has heard countless stories about PTSD and the effect is has on veterans when they return home. She said bringing the wall outside the state may help veterans in other states realize there is help.
Vets Helping Vets will not be heading to Illinois this year as originally planned but will be headed east next year and when they do, it’ll be in a new van tricked out by Xtreme Grafx, a local graphic arts company that helped the group redo the wall in 2014 and which has promised to handle the decals for the van.
“It’s just funny how it works,” Modesitt said. “We were writing for a van and they called and said, ‘Do you want a van?’”