The phone rings at any time, day or night, from veterans facing a crisis.

A homeless veteran has no other place to stay for the night. A veteran and his family are about to have their electricity or heat turned off, because they cannot pay the utility costs.

Steve Milbourn always has his phone on him and is quick to respond to the emergencies. He has excused himself from family holiday celebrations to handle problems veterans are having. One time, he left his Greenwood home at 1 a.m. to drive out to meet a veteran who had no money for gas and was stranded in Johnson County.

On average, he gets veterans the short-term help they need in about four hours.

“Helping a veteran is the most important thing. If not us, who?” he said. “What day it is, or what time it is makes no difference to me. Unfortunately, veterans have problems 24 hours a day.”

Milbourn is the service officer for Greenwood Memorial Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5864. He provides assistance for veterans in need, particularly overseeing the relief fund established solely specifically to aid those who have served in the military and are now facing difficulties from homelessness, drug or alcohol addiction, job loss or other issues. The only way the money can be spent is if it goes toward veterans or their families.

Supported by fundraisers throughout the year, notably the Buddy poppy donation drive going on at locations throughout the county today, the fund is just a small way for veterans to help their own.

For Milbourn, that mission is intensely personal. In 1988, after his wife said she wanted a divorce, the Vietnam War veteran’s life spiraled downward quickly. He was drinking too much and attempted suicide. He eventually found himself homeless and in a Veterans Affairs shelter in Indianapolis.

“They are talking to someone who has been through this kind of thing,” he said. “I believe that everyone deserves a chance to make things better, and honestly, it’s a very difficult thing to be in a position where you’re homeless.”

The clock had not yet hit 2 p.m. Tuesday, and already Milbourn had fielded 15 calls for assistance. A box full of hundreds of applications forms, which every veteran needs to fill out before receiving help from the VFW, were laid out in front of him.

One person did not have a place to stay and needed a hotel room for two nights. Another man was unable to get to work because his motor scooter was broken, and he didn’t have the money for repairs. A third was short on his rent and needed a boost to avoid getting evicted.

From July 1, 2014 to the end of 2016, Post 5864 gave out more than $39,500 through its relief fund.

Almost all of that money comes from the poppy drive that the VFW hosts twice each year. The money generated today, as well as the drive conducted on Veterans Day in November, will support the relief fund.

People can donate as little or as much as they’d like for a poppy. Post volunteers will be at 17 locations throughout the county, and will give out more than 10,000 poppies. When the day is done, they’ll likely have collected $6,000 to $7,000 for the relief fund, said Sherri Jones, chairwoman of the poppy drive.

“It’s one of the few ways we can really raise money for veterans and their families for things that they need,” she said. “It’s nice for us being out in the community, where we can hear some really outstanding stories from veterans. We can interact with people and let them know that there are veterans all around, and we went for a reason — for their freedom.”

The poppy drive dates back to 1922. Disabled veterans physically make the poppies, and local posts put the funds to use assisting needy veterans in their communities. That focus serves as the cornerstone of what the VFW is about, said Lynn W. Rolf III, director of programs for the VFW.

“The veteran is the backbone of society. We’re the standard-bearers. It is our duty, after we take off the uniform, to continue to serve our communities and our fellow veterans,” he said.

Local VFW posts remain active in veterans’ relief work. VFW Post 6978, based in New Whiteland, focuses much of its efforts on raising money to go directly into a fund. The veterans’ relief fund provides assistance to those who might be struggling to pay bills, get medical help or have some other emergency.

The post also provides money to a transportation fund for veterans through Access Johnson County, and visits elderly veterans throughout the year.

Milbourn has been overseeing the relief fund in Greenwood for the past five years. He is the post commander at Post 5864, in addition to the service officer. He also is the service officer for American Legion Post 252 in Greenwood.

For his work with the VFW, he has been named an All-American four times. The distinction is given nationally for leadership and maintaining outstanding membership.

When he sits down with a veteran, he finds out the severity of his or her issues. He asks them questions about situations, how they’ve been living and why they need the money.

He uses his own story to connect with them.

Milbourn served in the Vietnam War with the 101st Airborne Division from 1966 to 1967. When he returned from Vietnam, he didn’t anticipate the problems that he would face.

He said that he drank too much, and he says his life hit rock bottom after his wife divorced him. He attempted suicide and ended up in the VA hospital in treatment for alcoholism.

His stint in the hospital lasted 10 weeks. With no place to go after release, he was eventually sent to a domiciliary, a Veterans Affairs-sponsored facility, for about four months.

He was coached to help him get a job. Counseling and additional resources helped him and other veterans piece their lives together.

“I was able to get my life on stable footing,” he said. “At that time, I was able to get a job, and was able to get back to what I needed to do.”

His experience in the depths of alcoholism and homelessness has hardened his resolve to help other veterans who may be struggling now.

“One of the reasons I enjoy doing this job is that I have been where they are, I’ve walked in their shoes, and I tell them that,” he said.

Every six months, Milbourn estimates he gives out $7,000 to $9,000 on veteran relief. Veterans are not required to repay the money, though they can once they get back on stable financial ground.

At the post level, he can only give out $150 at a time to a veteran in need. Anything above that amount requires permission and a vote from the rest of the post membership.

But he can help them apply to state resources if they need a much larger amount.

Milbourn almost never provides cash, but he can write them a check for the services that they need. His 25 years as a service officer at different VFWs has taught him how to read people to get behind their true intentions.

He can usually do a good job of analyzing a person over the course of a conversation, and has found that he’s rarely wrong.

“To some extent, their fate in my hands, and I don’t take that job on lightly,” he said. “I’m always in favor of the veteran getting what he deserves, or something a little bit better. But we have to be good stewards of the money we’re giving out and make sure they’re not trying to run a con game on us.”

In order to receive assistance, a person has to provide documentation that they did serve in the military, and to prove that they were honorably discharged.

They also have to give their address, and how they learned about the VFW relief fund.

“We try to get them through two or three days until they can regroup, figure out what they’re going to do,” Milbourn said. “Sometimes, we have to talk to them as a counselor and explain to them what they should do. It’s not really my business, but I don’t want to just give them money and send them on their way. I want to help them figure out their problems.”

Referrals comes from all over. Some come from the Hoosier Veterans Association Foundation, while others are provided Milbourn’s contact information from township trustees. VA hospitals have directed patients to Post 5864.

Requests for help have come from as far away as Kokomo, East Chicago and Tipton.

“We do not take in only Johnson County residents. If it’s a veteran in need, and he happens to drive by, we help them,” Milbourn said. “People call every day. Everybody sends them here.”

At a glance

VFW Post 5864 Poppy Drive

What: VFW members will be at locations throughout the area giving out poppies and collecting donations to support its veterans’ relief fund.

When: 9 a.m. today, throughout the morning and early afternoon

Where

  • Tractor Supply, 1460 U.S. 31 South, Greenwood
  • Tractor Supply, 8135 Brookville Road, Indianapolis
  • Rural King, 860 U.S. 31 South, Greenwood
  • Marsh Supermarket, 2409 State Road 135, Greenwood
  • Sam’s Club, 1101 Windhorst Way, Greenwood
  • Walmart, 1133 N. Emerson Ave., Greenwood
  • Walmart, 882 S. State Road 135, Greenwood
  • Kroger, 8745 S. Emerson St., Indianapolis
  • Kroger, 3100 Meridian Parke Dr., Greenwood
  • Kroger, 2200 Independence Dr., Greenwood
  • Kroger, 5961 N. State Road 135, Greenwood
  • Kroger, 1330 W. Southport Road, Indianapolis
  • Kroger, 5325 E. Thompson Road, Indianapolis
  • Kroger, 5911 S. Madison Ave., Indianapolis

How to contribute to the veterans’ relief fund: Donations may be made to VFW Post 5864 by calling 317-888-2488, mailing a check to 333 S. Washington St., Greenwood, or coming into the post directly. Checks should include “Relief Fund” in the memo line.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.