CUMBERLAND — A Rhode Island nonprofit that serves the state's homeless and at-risk veterans opened a military-style camp Friday where former soldiers can access a range of free services from medical screenings to housing assistance.
Operation Stand Down Rhode Island began welcoming some of the 350 to 400 veterans expected to visit the encampment at Diamond Hill Park in Cumberland, which will remain open through Sunday.
The camp, in its 19th year, provides veterans with medical and dental care, help finding housing and employment, substance abuse or other counseling, and legal services, all at no cost. One tent featured barber's chairs for haircuts; another had massage therapy.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee addressed the veterans at a brief opening ceremony, where attendees sang "Amazing Grace" and the national anthem. He said he wanted to make sure all veterans get the help they deserve.
"We stand with you all the way," he said.
Anthony DeQuattro, president of the Johnston-based Operation Stand Down, urged veterans to take advantage of all the services available, including from representatives of the state's special Veteran's Court, which hears cases involving veterans with post-traumatic stress and other problems, and the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal.
"I'm not going to babysit you," he told the veterans. "You've got to want to help yourself."
After the ceremony, a line snaked toward the mess tent, where Johnson & Wales University students were providing lunch — turkey sandwiches, Italian wedding soup, macaroni and potato salad and dessert, including carrot cake.
Earnest Shorts, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam and said he has a lot of medical problems, was among the attendees. The 57-year-old Pawtucket resident, who walks with a cane and wears a wooden cross around his neck, said he got an HIV test Friday morning and was planning to take advantage of other preventative screenings — as well as get a flu shot.
"It's very convenient," he said of the annual encampment.