“This little agency right here brought in over $4 million in compensation and pension payments to citizens of Nassau County to spend in Nassau County,” says Yngstrom. “That’s the most we ever brought in. The year before it was $1.5 million.”
His deputy, Scott Castillo, who runs the “Welcome Back Warriors” project for returning vets, says that he’s just gotten a Vietnam veteran a $100,000 medical reimbursement award to treat his Parkinson’s disease—the largest award Castillo had ever seen.
Getting the word out to the veterans can be a daunting challenge, Yngstrom and other advocates say. One thing groups like his does is help organize a “veterans stand-down” twice a year in Nassau and once in Suffolk. Last November, 230 veterans, many of them homeless, came to the New York State Armory in Freeport, where they met with service providers from a wide array of agencies besides the VA. There were also legal services, health screenings, free haircuts, showers, a full-course meal and “enough clothing to open up a Macy’s,” he adds.
And because the clothing is top drawer, Yngstrom says some unscrupulous people have tried to take advantage of the donors’ generosity. But the “phonies” are easy to spot, he says. For one thing, these guys don’t know their service number, something “you never forget,” says Yngstrom, who recounts how one man in 50s and “dressed to the nines,” showed up at a stand-down to get into the clothing area but hemmed and hawed when pressed for his number.
“The guy goes, ‘Oh, man, come on! I did service back in the ’80s!’ I say, ‘Your service number should be very recognizable to you.’ He still didn’t get it. So I said, ‘Let’s take a walk.’”
Yngstrom led him outside, past the Channel 12 camera crew that had been recording the exchange. “I said to him, ‘You’re not a veteran. If I ever see you again at one of my stand-downs, look down.’ I had my jump-boots on, steel-tips. I say, ‘This boot is going to be so far up your ass that you’re going to be chewing on my shoe laces. Now get out of here.’”
But don’t get Yngstrom wrong. “My rule is that if they’re not a veteran but they look they’re in raggedy clothes and they haven’t eaten, let them in. I’m not turning anybody away who looks like they’re half dead.”
The next Nassau stand-down will be set up this summer. Northport VA plans to hold one in October.