“There’s something that’s happening here that people want to be part of,” says Stand Down founder Dr. Jon Nachison. “I try to bear
in mind that this event is for volunteers as well — it’s a chance for them to find the best person in themselves for three days.”
and from a local hospital for minor outpatient surgeries.
Optometrists provide eye exams and can fit new glasses on
the spot. Veterans’ children — any veteran can bring his or
her dependents — can play games and do arts, crafts and
other activities in the children’s tent, where Nachison’s wife,
In the evenings, Stand Down transforms into a music
festival, with local bands and musicians performing for free
and veterans and volunteers dancing in the grass.
“Jon had to beg people to perform in the beginning,” says
psychologist Victor Frazao, PhD, who has volunteered as a tent
leader for Stand Down for 10 years. “Now he has to turn people
away. Once people have done it, they want to come back.”
Volunteers return home each evening, while local active-
duty military stand guard all night to offer a sense of
security to participants, many of whom are used to sleeping
during the day because they don’t feel safe sleeping at night.
Nachison sleeps in a camper in the parking lot.
A dynamic event
Like the musicians, volunteers such as Frazao serve only
once before they are hooked. Many schedule their vacations
around Stand Down, which requires a week of setup before
gates open. One such volunteer is “ 60 Minutes” producer
Henry Schuster, who returned as a volunteer with his two
teenage sons in 2011 after spending three days documenting
the event in 2010. Other volunteers hail from veterans
organizations throughout the country that are doing
reconnaissance on how to host a Stand Down in their city.
More than 3,500 people volunteered for the 2012 Stand
Down alone, but Nachison is the heart of the program, say its
“Jon is the head of the table, wherever he goes,” says
Ron Stark, a retired Navy submarine sonar technician who
is Stand Down’s logistics coordinator. Since Stark started
volunteering with Stand Down in 1995, five of his former
Navy shipmates have sought shelter at Stand Down and
only one of them is still homeless today. Stark credits the
program’s success to Nachison’s steadfast commitment to
“It’s clear to him that each person who comes needs to be
their own superhero,” says Stark.
To keep Stand Down dynamic, Nachison, who works
full time as chief of psychology at Bayview and Paradise
Valley Hospital in San Diego, welcomes almost every type of
professional who wants to pitch in. Over the years, he’s added
artists who give workshops on drawing and creative writing,
massage therapists, acupuncturists and a local psychologist,
Edith Eger, PhD, who survived Auschwitz, to speak to the
veterans about resilience.
“There’s something that’s happening here that people
want to be part of,” says Nachison. “I try to bear in mind that
this event is for volunteers as well — it’s a chance for them to
find the best person in themselves for three days.”
Nachison is most proud of the fastest-growing volunteer
segment: former Stand Down participants. Hundreds of regular
volunteers are alumni of the program who are no longer
homeless, “and there are more and more every year,” he says.
One volunteer, U.S. Marine Corps veteran James Vicente,
says that when he came to Stand Down he had already tried
“every program under the sun” to get his life back on track.
“Stand Down was the only thing that got me out from the
under the bridge club,” he says.
Alumni recently started the National Stand Down Alumni
Association, which provides a year-round support system for
At the end of each Stand Down, volunteers and
participants join hands around the field for a graduation
ceremony while bagpipes play.
By then, no one can tell who is a volunteer and who is
a participant, says Nachison. Many participants have been
matched with a local treatment or follow-up program. Others
haven’t figured out their next step yet, and many of those
same men and women will be back the following year.
“Not everyone gets it in the first few times,” says Nachison.
But plenty of others do. “I can’t explain it without sounding
self-serving, but there is some kind of a magic that happens
that is transformative to everyone there,” he says. “It really
feels like this place where miracles can happen.” n