When a soldier goes off to fight, we say, “We’re praying for you.” When a soldier passes in uniform we gush, “Thank you for your service.” When a soldier is brought out on a football field, we whoop and cheer loudly.
But when a soldier dealing with post-combat issues needs a place to go, and that place needs to be built, and that building is in our backyard, suddenly, we’re not so welcoming.
For years, the Michigan Veterans Foundation had a facility in the Cass Corridor area of Detroit. The center provided meals, guidance, treatment and a welcome embrace for veterans dealing with everything from post-traumatic stress to homelessness. No one objected because, let’s face it, the Cass Corridor was hardly valued real estate. Truth is, that’s why many of our social services outlets were located there.
Recently, that has changed. A new hockey arena and a new Wayne State University business school made the Veterans Foundation site — and others nearby — desirable. An offer was made and, rather than fight the tide, the foundation accepted. It sold the building.
And began searching for a new home.
And, suddenly, the cheering stopped.
New location opposed
“Opposition was expressed,” explained Tyrone Chatman, executive director of the Michigan Veterans Foundation, when speaking about the site in Detroit’s Woodbridge District that the veterans group purchased, with plans of building a new center. “They thought it wasn’t a good fit.”
The property currently is an empty lot. And buildings nearby are mostly empty. You would think some activity — any activity — would be welcome.
But numerous residents objected, writing letters to the Detroit Planning Commission and speaking out during community meetings. They were often careful to say how much they supported veterans — don’t we always? — but then said the site was used for walking dogs or jogging and, besides, maybe a more fitting business could go there. You know, the kind that might increase property values.
Chatman, a Vietnam vet, took this hard. He remembered how returning soldiers in his day were spat upon by their countrymen. He thought we were past that.
“It kind of bothers us that it’s OK for men and women to give themselves to this great nation and fight our wars,” Chatman said, “but it’s not OK for us to live near you?”
Sadly, that’s the case. And it’s not the first time it has happened. When those same soldiers we enthusiastically send to fight our wars return with physical or mental issues, we’d privately prefer that they stay out of view.
Which renders us hypocrites.
Overcoming the objections
I have known Chatman and the Michigan veterans group for a while. S.A.Y. Detroit, a charity I helped create, built a state-of-the art kitchen in the Cass Corridor facility. When I visit, the place is spotless. The clients are respectful. Military decorum is followed. You can tell many veterans still cling to their service as a buoy in troubled waters.
There are no wandering vagrants, no leering or dirty language. Nothing that would diminish a neighborhood. The building itself is neat, clean and attractive. The new building’s design is even more impressive, a single-story pentagon with a courtyard in its center.
“We thought the community would be delighted to support it,” Chatman said.
Instead, many objected to its look, while more likely being concerned about its clientele. The center, with a kitchen, gym, guidance center and just over 100 beds, hopes to serve about 1,600 veterans each year.
“It’s not always pretty, when you see men and women that are confined to wheelchairs, canes, walkers, amputees,” Chatman said. “It just seems to me there ought to be a debt of gratitude saying, ‘Hey, guys, you’re our nation’s defenders. You’ve earned the right to live wherever you want.’ ” Fortunately, by a city meeting Thursday, such an attitude had taken over. According to Chatman, a female veteran spoke movingly of how she was helped. It helped. The plans were tentatively approved, and vocal opposition was minor.
“The vote was to move forward,” Chatman said. “It’s a new day.”
It shouldn’t have to be. The day we send a soldier off to fight should be the same kind of day when he or she returns. If we don’t shun them when we want their sacrifice, we can’t shun them when they need our help.
I’m glad the Woodbridge District has overcome its objections. We’ll be better when there are no objections in the first place.
Albom will sign copies of his new book, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,” at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 28 at Barnes & Noble in Huron Village in Ann Arbor and at noon Dec. 3 at Chapters in Windsor’s Devonshire Mall.