Old tensions bubble up among vets and service organizations in the reopened Veterans Memorial Building
From the bustling entrance hall of a newly renovated Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building, where dozens of veterans spent the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 15 filling out paperwork for medical benefits and support services, the faint sound of piano music and singing came floating up from the basement—or as it is known among veterans, “the bunker.”
It was the second week that veterans organizations had opened the Vets Hall’s doors for Wednesday One-Stop Shopping day (WOSS), a program that was formed at the veterans’ temporary Emeline Avenue resource center during the downtown location’s nearly three-year closure. The day serves as an easy way for veterans to access a range of services.
However, there was an element of tension in the building that morning. While the bulk of the renovation was complete, including structural support columns, a water heater, and a new foundation that won’t crumble in the event of an earthquake, county contractors were still working on a few projects in the auditorium and upstairs rooms, limiting the amount of space in which service providers could work. And downstairs in the bunker, an older feud, dating back to the ’80s, was rearing its head—a dispute among veterans organization members over who has the right to occupy the basement. This further confined the space for service providers.
“We have some barriers here because of the building. We can’t use the bunker right now, and we have an issue with the auditorium being out of commission,” says John Ramirez, a veterans’ representative for Twenty-First Century Vet and manager of the WOSS day. “It’s really cramping our style because we need the space to spread out so things aren’t so tense. [There have] been a lot of bristles.”
The Vets Hall is owned by the County of Santa Cruz, which has contracted the Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building Board of Trustees to oversee operations since 1984. While serving as a nonprofit community center, the Vets Hall is also an important resource for local veterans, who, with sponsorship from a veterans organization, previously had full access to the downstairs area. To generate revenue for the building’s staff, the upstairs rooms and auditorium were rented out, often drawing large crowds for events like punk rock shows and yoga classes. The bunker, on the other hand, was always a place veterans could call their own.
However, there has been a long-running dispute over control of the downstairs space, according to Norman “Tony” Heaney, a veteran and the president of the Board of Trustees.
Prior to its closure in 2010, Drew Goings, the building’s new manager and only current staff member, says unregulated access to the building was becoming problematic.
“There wasn’t a lot of, well … overview, for what was happening in the building,” he says. “So, things happened that were not necessarily appropriate for the building’s use, and it was agreed upon [by the county] that restrictions needed to be had.”
Heaney enters the stairwell, where the sound of the piano below is fully audible. He says the source of the music—about a dozen veterans from the Disabled American Veterans post (DAV)—is a protest of newly restricted access to the bunker.
“What happened in the past was out of control,” he says, not referring to any specific people or groups. “Burglar alarms going off in the middle of the night. The sheriff’s office and the police department arguing over who is going to come down here and take care of this. There was drug and alcohol abuse, you name it—cocaine deals, sex parties. [It was] totally out of control.”
It was these kinds of occurrences that Heaney speculates contributed to the hastiness with which the county shuttered the Vets Hall for the seismic reconstruction.
“The timing was opportune,” he says. “It gave them a good excuse.”
Heaney says the Board of Trustees aims to make the Vets Hall a more family oriented attraction for the community.
“What we’re trying to do is bring in families and also get younger veterans to engage here, because [older] guys like me, they’re fading—going away, dying, whatever—and we need a core of people to pick up the baton and keep going,” he says. “We’re looking at raising the bar of acceptable behavior, checking bags, and making it a safe place.”
Downstairs in the bunker, which has been revamped with a new checkered tile floor, the group of singing veterans continues. Among them sits a sign that reads, “Twin Lakes Church Out of the VMB Basement. Veterans Back In.” Playing the piano is a man dressed all in black, wearing a black hat and dark sunglasses, with a wiry grey beard. Heaney calls him the DAV’s “cult leader,” though his real name is Lawrence “Willy” Wilson. As of that day, Heaney and Wilson were not on speaking terms.
Several volunteers from Twin Lakes Church are sponsored by the American Legion Post 64 to cook hot meals for the veterans who come in for WOSS days, but Heaney says there is opposition among some veterans to any organized religion being in the bunker.
Wilson, who made the sign protesting Twin Lakes Church, says having these volunteers in the basement is like a “hostile takeover” and is in violation of an order by Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Thomas Black, who is now deceased. Black’s order, which was made in the ’90s, deems exclusive use of the bunker for veterans organizations.
“We had exclusive use of the basement and priority use of upstairs, and the Board of Trustees now contends that we do not have exclusive use anymore,” Wilson says. Earlier that morning, Wilson called the police when Heaney tried to take his sign away.
One element of Wilson’s frustration is that veterans organization members no longer have keys to the Vets Hall, which is a result of newly limited access to the building.
“For the first time in history we don’t get keys,” he says. “They [Board of Trustees] just said, ‘You’re not getting ’em.’ For a lot of vets, that’s a real slap in the face.”
Wilson, with the DAV, says he will go to court in the coming weeks seeking a cease and desist order against the Board of Trustees in hopes of acquiring keys to the building.
Heaney says there has been a longtime attitude among a faction of DAV members that they have control over the bunker, where members of a variety of organizations formerly assembled on Wednesdays.
“I don’t care where the donors or volunteers come from,” Heaney says. “As long as they are clean, polite, and willing to serve, then no one has the right to harangue them.”
The controversy over access to and use of the bunker dates back decades, Wilson says. He believes the county shut down the Vets Hall so abruptly in 2010, in part, due to these ongoing issues.
“Veterans are like Klingons,” he says, making a comical battle cry of “Awwoooo!”
“And right now,” he continues, “the county is smug because for the umpteenth time they have the veterans fighting amongst themselves. It makes them happy because it makes the veterans back off of them.”
Heaney hopes that, eventually, Wilson and other DAV members will align themselves with the Board of Trustees so that the focus can remain on those who he says are truly at risk. He recalls 28-year-old Army Pfc. Roy Brooks Mason Jr., who shot himself on West Cliff Drive in 2009. He was due to re-deploy in Iraq for a third time.
“I don’t want that to happen to anyone else,” Heaney says. “It has been two years of building this [WOSS] program, and now we’re working to bring it over here [to the Vets Hall], and it’s rough. [Veterans] can see a doctor, get counseling for housing, get mentoring, clothing, you name it—it is all here. But if we can’t do these outreach services, man, I’m walking.”
Ramirez says his frustration with the state of the Vets Hall and the ongoing renovation is reaching a boiling point. He suspects that the county jumped the gun on clearance for service providers to move back in because they needed the Emeline Avenue buildings for new Covered California health insurance offices.
“If we just had use of the auditorium, it would ease this tension,” Ramirez says. “But this building isn’t really ready for us to be here. It all just kind of pisses me off.”