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Home, and not forgotten | Myrtle Beach-area community provides resources for veterans in a variety of ways

Steve Slavik with Big Paws Canine. Courtesy photo.
Steve Slavik with Big Paws Canine. Courtesy photo.

Kris Tourtellotte, aka Turtle, has a heart for veterans because he is a combat veteran himself.

Having served in the Army for eight years, including a total of 24 months in Vietnam, Tourtellotte is the recipient of the Purple Heart for injuries sustained as a result of a rocket propelled grenade explosion. He also holds a Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

In 1984, he said he went to the VA for help with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] and later became a liaison between the VA and veterans to help make sure they got help too. But that was only the beginning.

He and wife Paula Tourtellotte were instrumental in the building of the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester, N.Y., in 1991. He hails from Syracuse. He also founded an organization called Operation Welcome Home, an outreach where returning veterans are greeted and celebrated.

“This was when the Gulf War started. I said there was no way these guys were going to come home like us,” he said. “Little did I know that was going to go nationwide,” he said.

The Tourtellottes moved to Little River in 2004. Tourtellotte had knee replacement surgery in 2007, and about the same time started discussing options for an all-inclusive resource center for veterans here on the Grand Strand with fellow Vietnam vet Bill Matthews.

“We had worked together on bringing the Vietnam Wall Memorial here, and I said let’s see if we could get this little resource center going.” They went out looking for places, and ultimately signed a lease on the original location in 2009 – with no money in their pockets.

A SAFE HAVEN

Fast forward: The Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center [www.veteranswelcomehomeandresourcecenter.org] is all they envisioned and more. Now in a new location – a four-bedroom house on Highway 57 in Little River – the Center is a veritable hub for veterans, offering a dizzying array of services under one roof, including everything from assistance with VA claims, enrollment and benefits review, referrals for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, study skills seminars, in-home services for disabled vets and spouses, and of course referrals for vets needing help with PTSD and other related issues. Many of these are referrals to the Myrtle Beach Vet Center, a standalone service of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

A program at the Center is called SURF, or Soldiers Urgent Relief Fund, which helps vets with rent, utilities or perhaps a car payment.

“We bring them in, check out their situation and why they are in the situation, and then help them out if we can.”

The money never goes to the individual, but rather directly to the landlord, utility or auto finance company.

When the center opened in its current location in April, a re-integration project was put into place for homeless veterans. And homelessness seems to dovetail with PTSD, substance abuse or simply a bad financial patch or a loss of benefits or employment.

“A lot of times with PTSD, you don’t get the right help,” said Tourtellotte. “You just get this attitude that you tell everybody to stuff it in their knickers. You don’t want to deal with anybody. “

The garage at the center serves as an office – along with another office in the living room area. “We have four bedrooms and seven beds for veterans to stay as long as they are willing and able to go to work,” he said.

The center staff is all-volunteer and is funded through donations from individuals, groups and businesses in the community. Nobody takes a salary.

Any vet that needs a place to stay needs to be qualified.

“Number one is that we make sure they are veterans. We have fliers out all over the place – but I will go out to places like Street Reach and the Community Kitchen or New Directions, and we are contacting the police departments, schools, churches and anybody that has anybody that they think would fit into the house. Then I go out and interview them.”

The Veterans’ Welcome Home and Resource Center’s website breaks down the crux of the reintegration project:

“Within the scope of the project, vets in need will be provided with a clean, safe place to live and an individually designed program that will afford them the opportunity to become productive members of society. Prior to entering the program, each veteran will receive a professional evaluation of their situation and be presented with a plan detailing the steps they must take to achieve an independent living status. Upon their agreement to commit to this plan, the vet will be accepted to the program. In this shared living environment, all residents must also agree to share responsibility for household tasks such as cleaning, cooking, building maintenance, etc. All vets accepted into the community will be welcome to stay at this facility and receive the benefits of professional care and counseling, as long as they adhere to their development plan and maintain a clean and sober lifestyle.”

Somebody once said something to the effect that our country should love our veterans as much as our veterans love our country. When we mentioned this to Tourtellotte, he said this has turned around in the last two decades or so.

“Every place I go, people are thanking me for my service – because I always wear a hat or have something on,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I even have [people] pull up next to my truck and make me roll the window down because I have the Purple Heart license plate – and they thank me. It’s almost overwhelming. Are we more appreciated now? Oh, hell yeah – but they still don’t know all of the struggles that vets are going through.”

On Saturday, June 13 a golf event at Legends Golf and Resort directly benefitted the Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center, or VWHRC.

“We completed our sixth annual Tee Off for Veterans, and about 80 percent of the golfers were veterans from our local area,” said tournament director Chris Aranda, also a U.S. Army veteran who says he served for 20 years and a day.

“Turtle will get a check from me for $8,000 in a couple of days,” he said.

Lou Mascherino, aka Mash, owner of Veterans Café & Grille in Myrtle Beach [with wife Rhonda Mascherino], has become a go-to when it comes to fundraisers for many veterans’ causes, including ongoing efforts for Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center. Mascherino served in the Army for three years in the 1970s.

“The first one we did was for Scents for Soldiers when they brought the Wounded Warriors into town,” he said. This was a dinner in 2010 attended by former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who gave a speech. After that, the Mascherinos started doing two benefits a year.

“Usually, October is for Turtle, and the other one in April is for somebody different.”

Other beneficiaries include Blue Star Mothers, an organization of parents with children serving in the Military and Wreaths Across America, which lays fresh wreaths on the graves of fallen servicepersons at Arlington and other veterans’ cemeteries every December.

But why Turtle and the Welcome Home Center?

“If a veteran needs something, all they need to do is pick up the phone and call Turtle,” he said. “We are more than happy to do anything to help him.”

The Veterans Café and Grille houses an array from military memorabilia from many eras – and can be considered a sort of town hall for veterans.

The Mascherinos have handed out cards to various organizations on the Grand Strand for veterans who might be going through hard times. Vets can present the card and eat free of charge.

Fitness instructor and Marine Corps veteran Ryan Small of Gunny’s Boot Camp [www.gunnysbootcamp.com], hosted an event at The Market Common last Saturday called Gunny’s Boot Camp Challenge – a fitness event benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project.

Small served 20 years in the Marines and had three tours: Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

“I had friends that didn’t come back, and I’ve got friends that came back severely injured or not quite themselves,” he said. “You see guys missing limbs or they’ve got third-degree burns on their faces, and you forget that when you are here. But when you are there you know it’s a reality those guys face every day. I kind of wanted to bring that out into the open, and the community support has been outstanding.”

He has also noticed the declining mental health of PTSD sufferers – a sometimes unnoticed or unrecognized wound – but a wound just the same. “I want to do my part to help ensure they get the quality of life they deserve,” he said.

CANINE CARE

Little River resident and Army combat veteran Justin Miller knows all too well the implications of PTSD, having served just over 11 years, including 27 months total in Iraq on two deployments.

He says he met Turtle and knows about the VWHRC, but until recently very rarely left his house. “I don’t do so well going out in public,” he said.

He says he deals with his situation a day at a time.

“Some days are good – my memory is good and I don’t seem to have many issues, but other days I can’t remember things from five minutes ago. Or just simple words – I’ll be in the middle of a conversation and just go blank.”

And what about loud noises?

“Loud noises, fast movements or unexpected touching,” he said. “My wife knows. I could be sitting at the table and my wife comes out, puts her hand on my arm – and if I’m not seeing her coming, it’s enough to make me jump.”

A major factor in his progress has come from his service dog, Bella – a 3-year-old Louisiana Catahoula Cur that was given to him by a friend who was stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., because his friend was under the impression that Bella was a Pit Bull/Lab mix, and Pits are banned on post.

“When I was in the process of getting medically retired, I was trying to get Bella certified as a service dog, but my retirement came nine months sooner than I was told and it didn’t end up getting finished,” he said.

But a fortuitous event came about at the Blue Crab Festival. While he was volunteering at his church’s booth [Renovation Church in Longs], an outfit called Big Paws Canine Academy and Foundation had a tent set up right next to him.

Big Paws Academy [www.bigpawscanine.com] had recently opened up a location in Aynor, with existing branches in Southern California and Sioux Falls, S.D.

“I took Bella out there, and they monitored her to see if her mannerisms were good enough and if she behaved well enough to be around other dogs and people,” he said. “She can’t show any type of aggression and has got to be a gentle, welcoming dog.”

She is – and after advising Miller of the things he needed to continue to work on with Bella and what would be involved on the test for certification, she passed and is now a bona fide service dog.

Big Paws cofounder Mary Slavik [along with husband Steve Slavik, Marine Corps vet and former police officer] says that Big Paws started in Southern California five years ago before branching out to South Dakota. She said they moved to Aynor in 2014 to be closer to her mother after her father passed away.

The foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, is funded through grants, sponsorships and private donations. The primary purpose of Big Paws is to provide service, therapy and companion dogs to disabled veterans and former first responders injured in the line of duty. Like the VWHRC, nobody takes a salary.

But where do the dogs come from?

“Breeders will often donate pups from a litter and advise Big Paws Canine on the bloodline and any health issues to be aware of. Sometimes recipients have their own dog with a strong bond already. We will assess the dog for skill set, discipline and health. We have obtained dogs from rescues, but need to be careful with this as any future health issues are unknown,” she said.

Big Paws commits to support the recipient for the life of the dog.

“We hold individual and group training classes. We also provide a community of like-minded individuals. Veterans and first responders understand and trust each other more than they would the general public. Big Paws Canine has provided a safe community for them to be at ease,” she said.

VILLAGES FOR VETERANS

And there is a new movement afoot to bring permanent housing to homeless veterans.

Brad Jordan, president and CEO of Accord Architects & Engineers, is a service disabled veteran who served in the Navy during the first Gulf War.

He recently became the executive director of a newly formed nonprofit called the Veterans Housing Development Corporation, which is working on a concept that could revolutionize the way the plight of homeless veterans is handled: Converting shipping containers into viable housing units and placing these units on parcels of land, creating gated communities called Veterans Villages.

“It’s a low cost for manufacturing, and we thought based on the issues of homeless veterans, that this would be the perfect solution for that problem,” he said.

“We formed up Veterans Housing Development Corporation as a nonprofit organization to design and implement, build and run Veterans Villages – basically gated areas that are safe and secure environments with any number of units depending on the lot size that we are donated or procure – and then a common area which would include a laundry area, a security guard, property management – an on-call nurses station, job placement assistance – as well as an on-site shuttle to job interviews, doctors’ appointments and things of that nature.”

This project is in its nascent stages right now, with one unit complete on a donated property located near S.C. 707 and Holmestown Road.

“We are in the investigative and master planning process for that piece of property – to ascertain costs and feasibility of developing it into a Veterans Village,” he said.

A love for motorcycles and a heart for service to other veterans sums up the mission of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, or CVMA. The Grand Strand is home to Chapter 34-3.

According to chapter secretary Jewels Strickland, the mission of the group is a simple one.

“We’re a group of veterans and active duty military that come together to further the cause of helping veterans in need and furthering the motorcycle hobby,” he said, adding that anyone who was or is in active military service and served in the combat theater can become a member.

The Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association [www.cvma34-3.com] is not a motorcycle club, but rather a volunteer organization and a nonprofit with a focus on helping veterans in the community.

Strickland himself said he got out of the Army in February of last year, having been with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and deployed to Afghanistan twice.

“I was not on a good path, dealing with my own psychological problems and drinking – not having a purpose because I was no longer in the military,” he said, adding that he ran into a guy at a beer festival when he was hammered. “He told me about the group and I linked up with them. We went to ride with a group of soldiers, and [the Combat Vets] weren’t worried about thanks or recognition. We greeted them, made sure they had a good time and we left. I decided at that point that this was the group I wanted to be involved with.”

Strickland sees PTSD as a big concern.

“I struggle with it daily. A lot of other guys within the organization do too,” he said. “And with guys coming back, some of them don’t handle it well on their own – so that’s how we wind up with those that can’t get jobs or are homeless. They don’t know how to deal with the public anymore.”

A current project is an undertaking called Operation Stand Down – a yearly event sponsored by AARP and connected to the Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center.

“We did the first one in the nation last year, and it has become a template for a lot of other states. We bring in veterans and get people to donate clothes, services like haircuts and dental cleanings – food, camping gear – whatever it is for guys that need it, and we sign them up to make sure they are getting benefits.”

When it comes to Turtle and company, the CVMA is essentially at his disposal. Tourtellotte is also a member of the CVMA.

“We give Turtle whatever he needs,” Strickland said. “If he needs bodies to do work, we supply those. If he needs money for a veteran or for the center, we will supply that. Turtle is a saint. He is one of the biggest veterans’ advocates I have ever seen. I don’t think I have met anyone in my life that gives as much as he does without expecting anything in return.”

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