CADILLAC — Roger Bandeen had the vision to help his brothers and sisters in arms.
That vision was the start of Veterans Serving Veterans. Then it was the establishment of the Veterans Serving Veterans Park. Then a food pantry was created to help veterans who are struggling.
Although that is a lot in a few short years, Bandeen is not satisfied. He has more ideas and hopes for the future.
Veterans Serving Veterans is a nonprofit organization made up of area veterans in support of disabled veterans. Bandeen, a retired Vietnam era veteran, is the founder of the organization and he donated multiple acres on South 41 Road to create the park. The idea was to give veterans a place to call their own, a place where they can get involved in projects that provide camaraderie and purpose, healing and hope.
During fall 2017 an open house was held to celebrate the completion of the multi-purpose building with office and meeting space plus laundry and bathroom facilities.
"It all started with Tails-A-Waggin' (Acres Hunting Preserve) and Chuck Connell. He had the pheasant hunt out there. After spending a couple of years out there you see the impact it has," Bandeen said. "Then you realize that a one-day event needs to be every day."
Post-traumatic stress disorder isn't on a schedule, Bandeen said. Instead, PTSD is more like an onion that peels off in layers. With that in mind, he said the veterans' park came to life to give veterans a place to come to every day of the year, 24/7.
As a Vietnam era veteran, Bandeen said he started Veterans Serving Veterans because veterans from that era were never welcomed home. To change that, he said there needed to be community involvement.
"This is a veteran community park in every sense of the word. We want the community involved out here with the veterans," he said. "The park puts the veteran's military family back together. The community gets involved with veterans working out here and then we have a spiritual presence out here too to help the vets."
Bandeen said there are some big plans for the future of the park.
These future features include a community 5K course that has been surveyed and is under construction. A picnic pavilion that will allow for major events to be held at the park including wedding receptions, craft shows, reunions or company picnic. The plan is to build one big enough to accommodate 400-450 people, Bandeen said.
"The idea is to get people out here in the park. Yes we have memorials out here but this is a working, functional and living park," he said. "Hopefully we will have something for everyone."
This includes trying to bring students to the park to aid in the educational process.
Bandeen said the goal is to get a monarch butterfly project up and running. The hope is to partner with the Michigan State University Extension and schools. The idea is to have the students start to grow milkweed ahead of the spring and then when the weather breaks plant them at the park.
Then they can come back and watch the caterpillars eat the plants, form their cocoon and transform into a butterfly. They with the aid of MSUE they could tag the butterflies to track their migration patterns.
We are trying to involve all segments and all cross-sections of the community. Cadillac is a wonderful place," Bandeen said. "I have lived in a lot of places and there isn't a place with the community outreach and commitment to veterans and other organizations like this town has."
The perfect example of that commitment to veterans was the aid of the local Home Depot store and the building of a new maintenance building. The multi-use building has served as a food pantry strictly for veterans and their families since last year. Bandeen said the pantry, however, is outgrowing its space.
With the need for added space, a new outbuilding is currently being constructed to get stuff out of the multipurpose building to free up more space for the food bank operation.
"Home Depot gave us two grants. We received $20,000 from Home Depot and it bought all the materials. The community and veterans are putting it together," Bandeen said.
Home Depot employee and co-captain for Team Depot Barb Reimer one of the core values of the company is giving back and in particular giving back to veterans. She said the Home Depot Foundation gave the grants to Veterans Serving Veterans to build the new outbuilding and associates from the Cadillac store are helping to construct along with side veterans. Some of the Home Depot associates also are veterans so the project is one that is close to their hearts.
"This is what we do. We develop relationships and we hope to have more projects in the future," Reimer said.
Veterans Serving Veterans Board President Sue Markham said the help Home Depot is giving and the support of the community has been fantastic. It also helps to build camaraderie between the veterans and other community members.
"Some of the veterans working here have PTSD and this is an excellent output for them. It gets them in the community, gives them self worth and they can contribute," Markham said. "It is heartwarming. If we didn't have something like this, they (veterans) would be sitting at home and might not be getting the help they need."
The pantry, which is open from 1 to 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursday of each month, was started for obvious reasons, according to Steve Birdwell. He is spearheading the effort and Birdwell said he got the idea to start the new pantry after he worked at a few other pantries in the area. He said the hope is that veterans who are struggling and may not want to interact with the general public will come to this pantry for help.
Those who come get canned and dry goods as well as frozen meat when available. It is open to veterans who live in either Wexford or Missaukee counties.
The pantry started in July 2018 when Birdwell and other volunteers packed up a trailer and set up shop at the Cadillac Veterans Affairs Community Based Outpatient Clinic.
"It is out and around. The people that need to know (about the pantry) know," Birdwell said. "All the (veterans service) clubs know it. The (VA) clinic knows it. I get phone calls about it all the time."
The Veterans Serving Veterans Park is located at 3740 S. 41 Road across from the airport. Drive down about a half a mile and turn left at the signs. The food pantry is located in the building on the property.
Any veteran in need of assistance or anyone who is looking to donate to the pantry is urged to call Birdwell at 231-884-3597.