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Formerly homeless vet now runs Nevada County Veterans Resource Center

KNow & go

What: Veterans Day breakfast and ceremony

Where: Veterans Memorial Building, 255 S. Auburn St., Grass Valley

When: Breakfast from 8-9:30 a.m., free for veterans, $5 for all others; ceremony at 10 a.m., volley at 11:11 a.m.

In the Marine Corps David West was a platoon sergeant in charge of the lives of 134 Marines and a regimental tech chief for five battalions.

When he left the military, on the first day of his civilian job he was told he was not experienced enough to use the copy machine. That’s when he knew his transition wasn’t going to be easy.

Struggling to adapt to life outside the military and falling back on bad habits, he eventually found himself homeless.

“Nobody tells you that when you get out, the same problems that made you join are waiting for you when you get out,” West said. “Except they’re worse, they’re magnified.”

West was eventually able to get back on his feet and after going back to school at Sierra College, he’s worked on a congressional campaign, at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs Office, and for the last year as Nevada County’s veterans services officer.

West knows how hard it can be to ask for help, even when he was most in need, and said his goal is to give back and give veterans the help they deserve.

“It’s really hard for veterans to ask for help. We’re taught to be leaders and its hard when you get out and can’t do that,” West said. “If a veteran is strong enough to walk through my door, we have to be strong enough to take the time to assist him in any way we can.”

West said he got help wherever it was offered, not just the VA, so it’s important for him to connect people across agencies, even if his department can’t help him.

“I hated when I would walk in somewhere and they’d just give me a card,” West said. “Gee, thanks, I could have gotten this on the internet.”

In need

In Nevada County, 24% of its 8,585 veterans population receive VA benefits. In his first year, West was able to lower the amount of time it takes to process a veteran’s claim to 97 days from a national average of 150 days, and provide more than $5.3 million in federal benefits to veterans on a $400,000 budget.

“What makes me different is I worked for the VA,” West said. “I know what they’re looking for and can wrap it with a bow on top for them.”

According to West, veterans are coming from other counties because of Nevada County’s reputation, some even from as far away as North Carolina. He’s even contracted to help Placer County transition its new veterans services officer.

“Veterans talk,” West said. “When they come in I try to take the stress out of them, make them feel at ease,”

His office has food, posters and conversation starters. The TV is on SportCenter — anything to get veterans comfortable and make a personal connection.

“If it’s a homeless veteran, I’m personally able to get that connection with him,” West said.

Passion to help

At a ceremony last week, County Executive Officer Alison Lehman described West as “one of the hardest working individuals” in county government.

“(West) comes to work everyday with a mindset of how to best support our local veterans,” Lehman said.

Steven Rose, a 25-year veteran and Nevada County Human Resources director, said West continues to work hard because of his passion for service, particularly to veterans.

“He really loves it,” Rose said, “If there’s anything more he could do to help veterans, he would be doing it.”

According to West, his commitment to service comes from a saying his grandfather told him and simply knowing his brothers and sisters need help.

“You’re only as good as your community,” West said. “How happy can you be if your community is suffering? If I have veterans in this community who are suffering, I’m not doing well.”

He said he’s in a good position as a veteran and a formerly homeless person to help those who need it most, but his biggest struggle at the resource center is getting awareness about who can get help.

“Some people don’t think they’re a veteran because they didn’t go to war,” West said. “I have Vietnam veterans who were spit and kicked when they came home who say they didn’t know it was available for them,”

West’s message is to come to the Brighton Greens Center — 988 McCourtney Road, Grass Valley — and see what people are eligible for.

“If you served one day, if you ever put on the uniform, take time out of your day and see what’s available for you,” West said.

To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email jorona@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.

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