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The Comeback Colonel: Once a homeless veteran, a local man is drawing his way back into society 

Local veteran working his way back into society.

click to enlarge news_vet.jpg
They called him the Colonel and while I figured he probably never attained that rank during his time in the Army, he seemed to command the respect of everyone on that exceptionally cold spring morning earlier this year. I remember that, and how he appeared out of nowhere, it seemed, as volunteers from the Central Oregon Veterans Outreach (COVO) arrived in a makeshift Bend homeless camp, as they do every week, with food, camping gear, fresh water, toiletries and other supplies.

He cheerfully greeted the three volunteers, whom he clearly had come to know quite well during the few months since he'd been living in the camp. Soon he got to talking about life as a homeless veteran in Central Oregon. The cheerfulness immediately disappeared when he told me about a friend of his who'd recently died in the camp. Emotion was coming over him as he mumbled, "They're dooming us to failure out here."

The Colonel shook his head, looked to the ground, apologized and faded back into the surrounding brush from which he'd appeared just minutes earlier. The volunteers were quiet for a moment, then went back to the task of equipping the camp's population - homeless or otherwise - with sack lunches, socks and anything else they might need.

I'd headed out to the homeless camps that day to follow up on information from the One Night Homeless Count, a coordinated effort to quantify the number of homeless residents in the tri-county area, indicating that the number of homeless veterans in the region had risen sharply. COVO Executive Director Chuck Hemingway actually estimated the number to be higher than the figures provided by the count, figuring there were more than 200 homeless military veterans living in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties. This paper took notice, as did others in the community. The uptick in homelessness among vets is one reason that COVO is the beneficiary of this year's Source Weekly charity auction.

COVO has made its presence known in the region over the past year, expanding its resources by adding a much-needed medical van (see sidebar) that can provide mobile medical services to the homeless camps while continuing the bevy of other services the organization provides, ranging from assistance with housing or maneuvering through the Veterans Affairs system. As I was catching up with the COVO crew recently, one of the volunteers, Steve Martin, asked if I remembered "the guy they called the Colonel." Of course, I told him.

Things had changed for the Colonel, who I'd soon learn was actually a 63-year-old man named Richard Klenk, Martin said. First of all, he'd nearly died of an infection, but in order to survive the ordeal, doctors had to amputate his right leg to prevent the infection from spreading. This was sad, of course, but Martin followed it up with some surprisingly bright news. The Colonel, it turned out, had taken a new perspective on things, which I quickly saw firsthand when I went to see him in Redmond last week.

"Since I've seen you a lot has come down; a lot has changed," Klenk says as I enter his bedroom in the rear of a friend's home where he's been living since being released from the hospital more than two months ago.

He removes his glasses and pushes his wheelchair away from the tiny writing desk on which sits an ornately detailed pencil drawing of his host's dog. His account of his ordeal begins around the time he was living in an RV with some other homeless people and developed a sore on his leg that later became infected. Eventually, this led to him waking up in a hospital room shockingly realizing that his right leg had been amputated. He says that living outdoors and abusing alcohol didn't help his situation.

"Losing your leg takes a lot out of your lifestyle. At least I'm alive and making a comeback," says Klenk, who stopped drinking after being hospitalized.

Next to his desk is a stack of recently completed drawings. There's a portrait of Sitting Bull, numerous wildlife creatures, including some lifelike sketches of eagles in addition to more abstract works. His drawings, created with heavy graphite pencils he keeps razor sharp, are textured with the precise and deep lines he presses into the paper for more than five hours a day, resting occasionally on the nearby bed when the effort of his work strains his still-healing body (he also is recovering from a shoulder injury).

He hands me a three-ring binder that serves as his portfolio and inside there are photo-realism-style portraits of Mother Theresa ("One of my favorite women," he says), Gahndi and a dead-on depiction of a young Courtney Love, in addition to several other wildlife illustrations.

"I've been an artist all my life, but living out there in a camp you can't just sit down with an immaculate piece of paper and start creating something," says Klenk.

We talk very briefly about his time in Vietnam between 1969 and 1970 serving in the Army, but he changes the subject after only a few minutes. He apologizes and says he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and talking about Vietnam rarely leads to anything positive for him. But he does go on about a life that's seen him as a biker, a hippie, an outdoorsman, an artist, but also a convict who spent nearly two decades locked up for armed robbery. Klenk says it was during his time in the Oregon prison system that he began taking his artwork seriously and many of the pieces in his portfolio were created behind bars. During his recent homeless stint, he trusted COVO's Hemingway with the portfolio to ensure it remained safe. His life has been anything but smooth or easy, he says, but the art has usually been there for him, at least most of the time.

He's appreciative of COVO's efforts during his time in the homeless camps, pointing out that they actually gave him the pants he happens to be wearing on this particular day.

"They've never told me no. They've always helped me... . They've showed me a lot of respect," he says.

We cover plenty more about Klenk's past, but the conversation continues to circle back to the "comeback" he repeatedly mentions. He wants to have an art show to try his hand at selling his work again. He wants to move to Hawaii. But most of all, he wants to draw and when we wrap up our conversation, that's precisely what he returns to doing.

"I've got the opportunity and time and I want to make a statement with my art," he says.

Central Oregon Veterans Outreach

In May of this year, we ran a story about Central Oregon Veterans Outreach (COVO), a local nonprofit organization that provides a long list of services for the area's veterans, including providing assistance to our homeless population. For this year's Source Charity Auction, we've chosen COVO as the nonprofit organization that will receive the proceeds from the items you see in this issue's special section. Here's an idea of what this mostly volunteer-driven organization does in our community. Many of these programs rely heavily on donations from the public to remain operational.

Homeless Outreach: That majority of COVO's time is spent assisting Central Oregon's homeless population. While their intent is to help veterans with nowhere to live, COVO's policy is to assist any and all homeless people, regardless of whether or not they served in the military. In 2010 alone, the organization handed out hundreds of donated items, ranging from food to clothing to camping gear while also delivering fresh water to the region's homeless camps.

Medical Assistance: Shortly after we profiled COVO last spring, the organization received a donated van that they converted into a mobile health clinic. Partnering with Volunteers in Medicine, COVO is able to drive out to homeless camps and administer free medical services to the homeless, who otherwise might not be able to receive care.

Home of the Brave: The organization, with help from a grant from the federal department of Veteran's Affairs, also operates a six-bedroom transitional home called the Home of the Brave where homeless male veterans can enter a 90-day program to get their lives back on track. The alcohol-free home helps residents transition back into employment and active community involvement.

Other Assistance: One of COVO's sometimes overlooked, but vital, functions is found at the COVO headquarters at 117 NW Lafayette Avenue (in the Deschutes County Building). Here, COVO can help vets qualify for benefits from local, state and federal government programs. Homeless veterans can use the COVO offices to receive mail, which is important to obtain a driver's license and other important documentation to re-assimilate into society. It's here that COVO can help homeless veterans become eligible for a federal program (HUD-VASH) that puts former military members into permanent housing. (MB)

Senate Gives Veterans Help on the Jobs Front

The challenges facing military veterans are not unique to Central Oregon. The federal government has long wrestled with the issue and the U.S. Senate, in a rare showing of bipartisanship, tackled the job recently. While most of President Obama's much-discussed jobs plan has been tied up by Washington's increasingly contentious partisan gridlock, one piece of that proposal made its way through the Senate earlier this month - a move to extend tax credits to businesses that hire veterans and also fund efforts to train and employ veterans who've found themselves out of work following their service.

As of the beginning of November, more than 850,000 military veterans were unemployed. The employment rate among veterans who've served over the past few years has remained higher than the national average. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, veterans who've served in the military since 2001 (the beginning of our involvement in Afghanistan) have an unemployment rate of almost 12 percent, compared to a national rate of just over 9 percent.

Obama touted the move as a way to put the nation's veterans - a group who he says possesses unique and valuable skills - back to work in the private sector.

"Think of all the skills these veterans have acquired, often at a very young age. Think about the leadership they've learned and the cutting-edge technology they've mastered and their ability to adapt to multiple circumstances that you just can't get from a classroom," Obama said when announcing the passage of the legislation. "This is exactly the kind of leadership and responsibility that every American business should be trying to attract."

The tax credits available to businesses through the measure vary, depending on the time the veteran has been unemployed and also take into consideration the veteran's disability status. The maximum tax credit of $9,000 is reserved for businesses that hire a veteran who has been out of work for more than six months and is also disabled. A company could receive $5,600 for hiring a non-disabled veteran unemployed for six months and $2,400 for hiring a veteran who had been without a job for more than a month.

The state of Oregon currently has employment programs specifically designed for veterans. Veterans Affairs and Oregon Employment Department officials say they are optimistic that the bill will further their efforts.

"We're hopeful that businesses will review this and take a good hard look at it. For one, it increases the probable employment of a veteran with specialized skills and for the employer, it gives a reduction in tax liability," said Gary Dominick, the state's veterans program coordinator.

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