In the spirit of Veterans Day, it seems expected that the county’s 25,000 veterans would come together to honor the men and women who have served in uniform. But a recent visit to the Santa Barbara Veterans Memorial Building during one of its council meetings proved some wounds run too deep. Bickering between two muddled factions of old-timers and new members has divided the 11-member veterans council.
The newer vets have pushed to spruce up the county-owned property along oceanfront Cabrillo Boulevard. Former Navy pilot John Blankenship and his wife, Hazel — a former Saigon-based CIA agent considered a hard-liner by her adversaries — entered the picture in 2003 and are both representatives on the Pierre Claeyssens Museum and Library Foundation. The Blankenships accepted a $1 million check from the late Santa Barbara philanthropist in 2003 to convert the fairly bare structure into a museum and attraction.
Plans to repurpose the building were all but axed after it was declared a historical structure built on Chumash bones, but the proposal has continued to spark intense backlash from long-standing opponents. Largely represented by Bob Handy — the veterans council’s former vice chair — the older vets have continuously shot down the proposed grooming efforts, claiming the underlying motives are to glorify war instead of providing necessary benefits to old and new veterans.
There are roughly 10,000 veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — 6,000 are under 35 years old — in Santa Barbara County. But the internal power struggle within the coordinating council appears to have not only halted efforts to expand counseling, networking, and socializing services but also deterred many vets from even stepping foot inside the veterans building.
County officials — who have been made well aware of disputes between the warring factions — will soon have to decide whether or not to allow the coordinating council to manage the building. An audit in January 2012 determined that it lacked liability insurance for several months, didn’t have accounting records or an operating fund, and had hired undocumented workers. Although Chair Steve Penner announced those specific issues had been resolved, continuous infighting and the fact that building has seen two new managers since June have raised red flags.
“It’s kind of like a festering sore … every time you pull the bandage off, the scab comes off,” said Handy, who narrowly lost a contested election for chair to incumbent Penner at the coordinating council’s meeting last week.
Less than a mile from the veterans building, about 500 veterans attend Santa Barbara City College — and another 150 go to UCSB — but only four of the 30 vets present at the last meeting were under 50 years old. One of the younger men, Raymond Morua, who served in Iraq from 2001 to 2004 and currently works for Lois Capps’s office, has worked with veteran Michael Kwan to explore options to use the building as a hub to provide services for all vets.
Morua and Kwan hope the building’s future functions can emulate a military collaborative in Ventura that holds quarterly meetings to provide services for veterans including counseling, therapy, treatment for women, and trade-school, college, and other networking opportunities. Both factions claim to see eye-to-eye on the need to serve younger vets.
Several coordinating councilmembers have often suggested the idea of equipping the building with WiFi, computers, ping-pong tables, and TVs to attract younger vets, but years of infighting has inhibited progress. Councilmember Ron Dexter says the memorial building should be “a place of healing,” as a significant number of recent war veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Possibly the only person brave or crazy enough to intervene is a pilot nicknamed “Crash.” Just over two weeks ago, Commander Charles “Crash” Huff — who survived a helicopter crash in 1989 — became the second person to take over the position of building operator/executive director since June. He said he plans to be the face of the building — rather than just turn on and off the lights — and beef up the council’s funds by applying for grants and increasing the number of groups who rent out space.
Currently, the large building hosts Alcoholics Anonymous, yoga classes, the Organic Soup Kitchen, wedding receptions, quinceañeras, and other events for a relatively small fee, which brings in roughly $100,000 a year. “In the past, they just did it incorrectly,” Huff said. “Crash wants to do it better than it’s been done before.”
Huff also promised “improved lines of communication, 100 percent transparency, and laboring consistency.” Never spending more than three years in one place, Huff worked as city manager and operations officer in Puerto Rico, Sicily, and Ventura County after retiring from his position as a Navy commander for 25 years.
Expressing skepticism of Huff’s ability to quell the ongoing dispute, Handy said, “He’s coming from the military, where it’s black-and-white … in civilian management, there’s gray areas, and that is difficult for senior military people to understand.”
“It seems right now that the issues have reached a peak,” said Supervisor Janet Wolf. “We’ve just been getting so many phone calls.” At the last coordinating council meeting, Penner told the group that communication with the county should go through the chair. Wolf later clarified she always encourages anyone to call her office to express concern.
Veterans plan to pack the December 3 Board of Supervisors meeting to convince the supes they are capable of setting aside their differences. The supervisors are expected to vote at that meeting on whether the council will maintain control of the building.