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Veteran Fred L. Stanley works on sewing medical labels at the Veterans Hospital on Wilshire Boulevard Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

WESTWOOD — When Vietnam veteran Fred L. Stanley visits the 99 Cent Store, he does with pride for he carries with him a reusable grocery bag. Not only does he feel good about protecting the environment by using fewer plastic bags, Stanley also loves the attention he gets when people ask him about his bag, which features the logo of the city of Santa Monica.

That’s because Stanley and his co-workers with the Veterans Administration made the bag and 1,500 others like it for City Hall as part of the Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) Program at the Westwood VA, a program set up decades ago to assist disabled veterans on their road to recovery by teaching them new skills and allowing them to once again become part of something greater than themselves.

“The camaraderie and the chance to be able to come to a place and do something constructive instead of something destructive, accomplishing a particular task, that is rewarding and it helps you get through,” Stanley, who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), said Thursday as he sat in front of his sewing machine, black and gold cloth labels to his side that would soon be attached to military medical equipment.

Stanley and his five co-workers are contract employees of Special Operations Technologies, a company run by veterans in Carson that specializes in military gear. Each veteran in the therapy program is paid a rate for every item they produce. Unlike jobs in the private sector, there is no overwhelming pressure to produce. The program is therapy and therefore the stress that can accompany a high-pressure job is absent.

To make sure that happens, the VA searches for businesses like S.O. Tech that are familiar with the obstacles some veterans face when returning home from battle. VA officials want companies that are willing to work with the veterans, show compassion and build up a worker’s self esteem. In addition to S.O. Tech, the Westwood VA contracts with another company, Ready America, which has veterans assembling earthquake kits for families.

“The goal of the program is not just giving them skills to work for pay, but also to provide a therapeutic environment where vets feel a part of the community,” said Edna Naito-Chan, the CWT program director. “Work is very much associated with self-esteem and self-worth so it provides some of that. It is an important component of their recovery and treatment.”

There are roughly 30 veterans enrolled in the CWT program at the Westwood VA, Naito-Chan said.

Mike Berge with S.O. Tech is a veteran himself, having served in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His boss, also a veteran, heard about CWT during his visits to the VA for treatment and wanted to get involved. The company has hired at least two veterans full-time and is pleased with the results so far. S.O. Tech has produced 1,500 reusable bags for City Hall and has another order for 1,000 on the way.

“I think it is great working with these guys, knowing somewhat what they have been through and being able to relate to that and help them get through some of the struggles is fantastic,” Berge said.

It was Berge who helped train Stanley and his co-workers on the techniques of sewing. He admits that it was somewhat of a challenge at first considering some of the vets had never used a sewing machine before, but after a few weeks, they were ready to start making the bags, which City Hall ordered to help residents with the transition from using paper or plastic bags. City Hall is considering banning single-use bags.

Josephine Miller with City Hall’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment, felt it was important to find a company that was local to produce the bags, cutting down on pollution generated by transporting the bags from China as well as providing jobs for locals. Miller built a relationship with veterans, having been familiar with the Vets’ Garden, another therapeutic program at the Westwood campus.

“We were looking for an economically viable solution for reusable bags that really walks the walk in terms of being made locally and being respectful of the environment,” Miller said.

S.O. Tech was a perfect choice, she said, because the company is local, helps vets and uses scrap material that would normally be thrown into a landfill.

City Hall is looking to expand its relationship with the veterans, allowing visitor’s to next year’s Santa Monica Festival the opportunity to make their own bags with the veterans’ help as well as guidance from Rosie’s Girls, local teens enrolled in a program designed to build self-esteem and leadership qualities in middle school girls by exploring various trades that have historically lacked a strong female presence.

“This is all about green jobs in our community, buying local and keeping waste out of the landfill,” Miller said.

It feels good for the veterans to be making products that help the environment as well as fellow soldiers on the battle field. For Louisa Tinson, who served in the Air Force in the late 1970s before injuring her back, making it difficult to find a job in the private sector, the work has given her something to look forward to, as well as a little change in her pocket during these touch economic times. She likes contributing and has hope that one day she can go into business for herself.

“It’s had a tremendous impact,” said Tinson, who suffers from chronic back pain. “Dealing with the pain can really put you in a bad state, but this makes me feel like I’m a part of life again.”

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