Mike Thompson understands what it’s like to return from a war.
Spokane Valley’s current fire chief served in Vietnam for two years as part of the U.S. military operation. He made it back to the states from southeast Asia in 1968 and – like many of his fellow soldiers – found the greeting in his native country less than welcoming.
“I remember a lot of derogatory comments,” Thompson said.
After retiring from the military in 1971, Thompson became a firefighter in the San Diego area. He has risen the administrative ranks over the years, serving as city manager in Culver City, Calif., before taking over Spokane Valley Fire Department’s top leadership role in March 2005.
|Representatives from the Spokane Valley Fire Department hosted an appreciation lunch for area veterans outside the Spokane Veterans Administration Hospital last week. The event was part of a four-day retreat sponsored by the Veterans Outreach Center in Spokane Valley.
Photo by: Craig Howard
Last week, Thompson was back among former soldiers at a lunch hosted by his department at the Veterans Administration Hospital in north Spokane. The meal marked the culmination of a four-day retreat sponsored by a group called “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon,” led by local firefighters and supported by area businesses, churches, unions and individuals. The Veterans Outreach Center, headquartered on Argonne Road in Spokane Valley has coordinated the retreat in the Deer Lake area, an hour north of Spokane, for the past two summers.
Thompson said his department understands the importance of helping veterans find their way back after serving in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I know what it was like when I came back,” Thompson said. “I know what some of them are going through.”
A total of 22 veterans took part in the second annual retreat featuring a schedule that includes boating, fishing, meals and supportive dialogue. Dave Baird, a counselor who works at the Vet Center, said the agenda is about reflection and healing.
“It’s more than just fun – there’s team-building that goes on,” he said. “There’s a real therapeutic piece to this.”
Steve Ward understands the value of fellowship during challenging times. His son, Eric, was killed in combat earlier this year while serving with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Steve, who lives in Newman Lake, contacted the Vet Center for counseling after Eric’s death. This year’s retreat was named in his son’s memory.
A former Marine himself, Steve said the help he received at the Vet Center proved critical to the healing process.
“Being a vet, there was a comfort zone going there,” Ward said. “It gave me some direction and hope.”
Ward – who served as a firefighter in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. after his tenure as a Marine – said the time and effort contributed by Spokane Valley firefighters to the retreat and other veteran causes does not go unnoticed.
“I have just as much respect for the fire force as I do for the Marines,” he said.
Darrin Coldiron has been part of the Valley fire corps since 2000. After returning from Sri Lanka in 2007 where he helped restore order after a devastating tsunami, Coldiron decided to help organize several fundraisers in Montana and the Spokane area to assist vets who had returned from tours in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It was about helping them reintegrate into the community,” Coldiron said.
While parades and flag waving have their place in welcoming home those who have served their country, Coldiron and others realized that the support system must go beyond banquets and Memorial Day salutes. In September 2007, Coldiron organized the first awareness event under the banner of a group called “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon.” The money raised at this gathering and others like it went toward the first veterans retreats in Spokane and Missoula.
Coldiron said he has been impressed by the generosity of individuals, businesses, unions, churches and other groups in donating to the cause.
“In every case, the funding has come from a huge section of the community,” he said. “What we’re doing is just focusing the goodwill of the people in helping these vets.”
Mike Ogle, a team leader at the Vet Center, said the retreats provide a positive atmosphere where veterans can begin to address issues like isolation and post traumatic stress disorder. Activities like a rope course, Ogle said, emphasize attendees “learning to depend on each other.”
“We help them realize they’re not alone,” Ogle said. “The retreats are great, but the key is follow-up. What we want to offer is a long-term support network.”
Want to find out more?
The Veterans Outreach Center is located at 100 N. Mullan Road., Suite 102 in Spokane Valley. The site offers free individual and family counseling as well as assistance with medical benefits, housing and employment. For more information, call 444-8387. A veterans, toll-free support number called Lifeline can also be reached at 1-800-273-8255.