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If in fact an army marches on its stomach, the veterans attending Thursday’s Homeless Veteran Stand Down event were in perfect lockstep, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the women in Passages’ Culinary Arts Program.

Seven female prison inmates honing their culinary skills under the direction of Chef Instructor Megan Jessee prepared and served 300 lunches to veterans, their families and service providers during the Stand Down, hosted by Volunteers of America at the Shrine Auditorium. Roasted turkey, loaded mashed potatoes, vegetables and a pumpkin cheesecake dessert were on the menu. 

“We have high expectations, and they usually exceed them,” Jessee said while her charges were plating meals for the Stand Down, now in its seventh year.

“This is really good experience, and I appreciate the opportunity to be part of this today,” said Adrienne Upshaw, who is set to graduate next month from the 18-month culinary program. “It’s great to get to meet people and show them our skills.”

Bill Holder, Volunteers of America director, said that about 45 providers — including hair stylists, nurses, massage therapists, veterans service groups, shelter operators, job service providers and educators — gathered under one roof to serve the up to 150 veterans expected to attend the Stand Down. "Stand down" is a Vietnam-era term referring to a safe retreat for units returning from combat operations.

In past years, the event also provided clothing to veterans in need, but Holder said a New Jersey warehouse full of surplus clothing burned, and event organizers instead relied on local donors for clothing, books and other essentials.

Holder said he enjoys hearing veterans’ stories each year during the event.

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“One fellow today applied for (housing) at Independence Hall. I heard the story of what got him in a homeless situation, and I’m able to assess his willingness to do the things that are necessary to prevent him from being homeless again,” Holder said at about mid-morning Thursday. “As we speak his application is being processed through the Veterans Administration.”

As a veteran who served two combat tours in Iraq, Salvador Hernandez was inquiring about tribal benefits from Vincent Goes Ahead, director of Apsaalooke Veterans Affairs, which serves 438 Crow veterans.

“As long as you’re doing what you need to be doing, you should get what you deserve,” said Hernandez, 31, who is working on a degree at Montana State University Billings. “It’s extremely great to have all this information so that veterans know where to get the help they need.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock dropped by to talk about a veterans assistance program that provides free confidential counseling for veterans in crisis. Bullock said the program, initially rolled out during the stand down event in Great Falls, is an extension of a counseling program offered to state employees.

Over the past year, five former Montana soldiers died by suicide, Bullock said.

“We ask so much of them,” the governor said. “We need to make sure they get the services they need.”

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