WEST L.A. — Today, people across the nation will seek out ways to honor the lives, and deaths, of countless men and women that have given everything for the safety of our country and the preservation of the ideals on which it was founded.

Still others will not only pay homage to those that have died, but work to support those that are still living.

John Duffy and Sharon Kilbride, two unrelated people from Santa Monica, are off from the starting block at 8:30 this morning. Both have a tendency to wake up and go running, although they only occasionally intend to accomplish more than personal fitness.

This Memorial Day is different.

They are participants in a five-kilometer run to raise money for a program called New Directions that works with veterans from all wars to relieve the condition that affects an estimated 107,000 of them each night: homelessness.

New Directions estimates that nearly 8,000 veterans sleep on the streets of Los Angeles, with returned soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan showing up faster than veterans of other conflicts.

“I think it is a really cool way to respect all that they’ve done for us,” Kilbride said. “These guys we’re running for are the people that have become homeless after doing their time in the war. I’m supportive of giving back.”

The race begins at the New Directions building in the Veterans Administration center on the 11300 block of Wilshire Boulevard, then circles up through Dewey Avenue to Pershing Avenue, which then intersects with Bonsall Aveune. A twist across Nimitz Avenue takes the runners back to Pershing and the beginning of the loop.

Each team will run the whole thing twice to reach the five kilometer goal.

Teams run to raise money and, equally important, awareness for the plight of thousands of veterans that have returned over the years from deadly conflict only to find that they could not find a place in the society they fought to protect.

Oftentimes, they fall into a dangerous spiral of post traumatic stress disorder that they self medicate with substance abuse, only to find themselves without a job, home or safety net to fall back on.

New Directions seeks to address that problem by offering housing, job placement and substance abuse services to veterans that return from war without anything to return to.

“I believe in social justice. It’s important to take good care of those who have served our country,” said Cindy Young, director of development and marketing at New Directions. “We want to raise money, of course, but we also want to raise awareness that veterans shouldn’t be welcomed back to a federal agency, but to a community.”

New Directions was founded in 1992 by a group of Vietnam veterans that believed that no generation of veterans should ever turn its back on another generation of veterans, as had happened when they returned from the most vilified war in American history.

What started as a single house on Barrington Street is now an organization with a budget of over $6 million that provides a comprehensive package of housing support, substance abuse and mental health programs to hundreds of veterans every year.

Runners may not know the history of the organization they run for, but they know its purpose.

Duffy got involved after seeing a flyer for the event.

“It just seemed like a good cause,” Duffy said. “I’ve had the opportunity to do some projects with the military, and I’ve seen what they go through in their training.”

A film producer by trade, Duffy helped put together internal training videos for the Marines and Navy Seals, a task which gave him intimate knowledge of the stress put on young people in preparation for war.

“It’s a visual thing. You forget these are 18-year-olds,” Duffy said. “You look at it and say, ‘Wow, these are kids!’”

Duffy, always up for a physical challenge himself, decided to join the race on a whim, but next year he wants to organize a group to raise more money for New Directions and the veterans it serves.

“I’ve seen injured veterans and I want to be able to do something to give something. I’ve seen how much they contribute, what families go through,” Duffy said. “This is a tiny thing of saying thank you, and maybe in some small way say that I appreciate it, and we appreciate what they do.”

 

ashley@www.smdp.com

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