NORTH TONAWANDA – A Vietnam veteran who dealt with his own demons is helping lift up other veterans coordinating the first “Go Fly a Kite for Homeless Veterans,” a free family-friendly event that will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday in Gratwick Waterfront Park.
Jack Michel said the idea came to him last September as he was returning from vacation, flying over the Caribbean and listening to a discussion of the traditions of flying a kite in Bermuda on Good Friday.
“I was thinking – go fly a kite, and had been thinking about something to help our homeless veterans because it has been such a problem,” Michel said. “Anything we can do can be a help to them.”
He said the problem affects both male and female veterans, often with children, who are forced to live in their cars when they get behind in their bills.
“The whole family can wind up with no place to go,” Michel said.
Michel went to Vietnam in 1970, serving 10 months in a Marine Corps unit, so he understands the struggle.
He said he battled post-traumatic stress for more than 30 years.
“I thought everyone else was the problem, until one day I chased a guy down the Thruway at 100 miles per hour. If I could have caught him, I would have run him off the road. All of a sudden I said, ‘Something’s wrong,’ ” Michel said.
Eventually he got help, spending four weeks in an extended residential program in Batavia in 2005.
“It literally changed my life. You start to realize you have it pretty good, a warm home, a wife and family that loves me, a car that runs pretty good – some veterans have nothing,” Michel said.
Michel eventually became a mentor in the Batavia PTSD clinic, where he said he sees a lot of veterans in trouble. He also volunteers for the courts in a veterans treatment program.
“I get to see the veterans who are still struggling with post-traumatic stress, addictions and other things. We try to give them that hand up,” Michel said.
He said organizers of the kite festival got some funny looks when they brought the idea to Chapter 77, Vietnam Veterans of America, in the City of Tonawanda, where he is a life member. But they got the go-ahead, rolled up their sleeves, eventually handing out nearly 14,000 fliers and bookmarks to local schoolchildren.
Michel said they will hand out 800 free kites and have a kite-flying demonstration by the Great Lakes Kite Flyers Society. A raffle of several hand-painted kites by Philip Glaser and other incarcerated veterans of the Attica Action Veterans group also will occur.
Walk-ins are welcome, but people can preregister for their kites at www.kitesforvets.com or call 435-7210 or 515-5844.
Donations will be accepted. All proceeds will help homeless veterans in Western New York.