Trying to get more aid for vets into gear

Rick Bella
Monday, November 06, 2006

People stare at Rick and Elizabeth Peters' big dump truck wherever they go -- and that suits them just fine. Anything to spread the Wilsonville couple's vision of better treatment for veterans.

The truck, a 2007 Peterbilt 379 with a matching trailer, is emblazoned with elaborate murals by Portland artist Jere Harley depicting the heroism of U.S. soldiers at war. There are murals of the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima, along with the American eagle and the flag. Two murals show GIs pausing to help fallen comrades.

Large but elegant letters proclaim that, "Freedom Is Not Free" and express gratitude for service: "Thank You Veterans." (See photos at www.p-i-co.com/truck).

"It doesn't take that much to be thankful," says Rick. "So, we choose to be thankful. Veterans have done so much for us all, but as a society, we don't treat them very well."

This isn't a new message for the Peters, who are Christians. In 2003, they assembled a slate of veterans whose speeches drew 1,000 people to George Fox University in Newberg.

But this year, they've clearly stepped up the volume on their message.

Rick, an investment adviser, and Elizabeth, spokeswoman for the Oregon Restaurant Association, ordered the quarter-million-dollar truck as a rolling monument and as a demonstration project. Rick said he hopes the truck will not only generate buzz, but that it might let some veteran realize that he can be working in the construction business.

"This truck has to be working, or I can't make the payments," says Rick, 53. "But I would really love it if we could put some veteran behind the wheel."

And what they'd love even more than that is to see their vision of a veterans' center built in the Portland area. As conceived, the center would be a place where state and federal veterans' affairs agencies could partner with volunteer groups and churches to deliver services to veterans. A health clinic would offer direct urgent care, and an employment service could link veterans with jobs. The center also could include a museum, amphitheater, arboretum and a pharmacy.

"As it is now, a veteran has to go to downtown Portland to start the process of applying for benefits," Rick says. "Then, he probably will have to go up to the VA Hospital for an evaluation. Then, he probably will have to go back downtown. . .

"You know, for a lot of Vietnam-era veterans or those with disabilities, that's just too much to go through," Rick says. "As a result, a lot of benefits that were earned go unclaimed."

The idea for a center was hatched when Rick and Elizabeth were eating lunch with Bill McCormick, co-founder of the McCormick & Schmick's chain of seafood restaurants. McCormick, now U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, has always set aside special days every year to offer free meals to veterans.

"We told Bill we had an idea to build a memorial auditorium for veterans," says Elizabeth, 41. "So he said, 'That's a great idea, but it's half a great idea. You need to build a center.' "

So earlier this year, the Peterses formed an organization for which they have received nonprofit status. They've already met with the directors of state and federal veterans' agencies in Oregon, along with staff members representing Oregon's Congressional delegation.

"But first, we need to spread the message," Rick says.

After running in Sunday's convoy from Vancouver to the Korean War Memorial in Wilsonville, the truck will be featured in the Vancouver Veterans Day observance.

"If only one veteran looks at this and realizes there are many Americans who appreciate the sacrifice he or she has made," he says, "it will all be worth it."

Rick Bella: 503-294-5114; rickbella@news.oregonian.com; 15495 S.W. Sequoia Parkway, Suite 190, Portland, OR 97224


2006 The Oregonian