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Once a struggling veteran, food pantry founder looks out for other former service members

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | November 9, 2022 12:00 AM

There was a period of time in North West Montana Veterans Food Pantry founder Allen Erickson’s life when he wasn’t sure when he’d see any relief from his struggles with alcoholism and homelessness.

Now 83-years-old — and 49 years sober — he’s running one of the first established and largest veterans outreach organizations in Montana.

Erickson was born in Tacoma, Washington but grew up in Lewistown, Montana with a large family: four brothers and seven sisters. He said his family owned a farm there, and his grandfather operated a golf course. At age 16, he enlisted in the Navy. He went to basic training in San Diego and kicked off what would be the next eight years of his life.

“Well, on my first tour we went from Guam to Japan. And the electrician transferred off and went back to the states. So I was an electrician and a seaman, and I wasn’t trained for electricity. The chief warrant officer says, ‘We can do it Erickson, we got the books,’ and then we did it,” Erickson said.

As promised, the learning curve wasn’t too tough for Erickson. Stationed on the USS DD1 floating dry dock, he and his shipmates watched as some of the last Japanese soldiers of World War II surrendered in Guam.

The beauty of the island also impressed itself on Erickson, who said he remembers the many caves all along Guam’s coastline. He also remembers the recently formed Underwater Demolition Teams, or UDTs, and thinking that if they could go scuba diving, there was no reason he and his shipmates couldn’t either.

“So we took a government air compressor and no filters and put a water bottle on it … and a gas mask — a War World II gas mask — and hooked an air hose up to it and fastened it to our belt and had a valve on it to where you could just control your air, the deeper you go need more air. So, we really only went down about 80 feet. That was crazy, it’s a wonder we didn’t kill ourselves,” Erickson said.

The good times, though, didn’t last. After leaving the Navy, he moved back to Washington and fell into a depression that many veterans struggle with.

“I was homeless, divorced and ended up with three kids,” Erickson said. “We had the clothes on our backs, a suitcase a piece and a small box of tools. Then I met this homeless lady. She had two girls, and we got married, about that quick, too. Together we had five kids.”

They soon added another member to the family, too. After a time being homeless in Spokane, Erickson said he “hated everybody in that part of the country” so he took his cousin up on an offer to move the family to Columbia Falls, where he took fishing trips as a child.

Erickson lifted himself out of his alcoholism and was given the opportunity to run a Chevron gas station in Kalispell, eventually also becoming a diesel mechanic.

THOUGH HIS time in the Navy had ended, Erickson continued to struggle with the after effects, particularly a cancer he got from exposure to Agent Orange — a tactical-use chemical the U.S. used during the Vietnam War. Erickson said he was discharged one month before he would have been sent to fight in the war, and that the government has told him it was impossible for him to get exposed to the chemical where he did.

“But, I’ve seen the guys in the Chevy pickup, one guy driving and one guy in the back spraying, here today, gone tomorrow, and back next week. You’d drive through that spray. So anyhow, I’m not getting any help from [the government],” Erickson said.

He’s endured many surgeries for the cancer, which he says is a type of skin cancer that lives inside of the body. He said he was presented to the World Council of Dermatology in the 1980s, along with eight other victims of Agent Orange.

It was during one of his treatments that a doctor from a hospital in Spokane contacted Erickson and asked him to organize a “Stand Down” in Libby for veterans.

“What’s a stand down?” He recalled asking the doctor.

“A stand down was where you were standing down from battle, going behind the lines into a safe zone to get real food and clothes and see a doctor — whatever you need, and then you go back out on the lines again, fighting,” Erickson said. “So that's what they did with the stand downs, made it a safe zone for veterans.”

It was a massive success — he said at their stand down they tended to 2,500 veterans in two days. That first stand down was in 1999. Its 23rd iteration took place this past October. Many of those stand downs held in between figured among the largest of their kind in the nation.

That experience launched Erickson’s work helping other veterans get needed resources. Montana has one of the largest veteran populations in the country per capita, falling behind only Alaska. Before they opened the food pantry in Kalispell in 2000, Erickson’s daughter and Outreach Coordinator Cinnamon Davis-Hall said she remembers the many “friends” her parents let stay with them while growing up.

“I became an adult and started doing this, I realized they were homeless. All those people that came and even when I was a kid, you were always helping the homeless, you and mom, even within our own home,” Davis-Hall said. “It's funny you know, when all of us siblings talked about that after they started the pantry, how they've been doing that all their lives while we were growing up. But we were always taken care of and they were always helping others too. So that was kind of cool.”

THE FOOD Pantry serves as a local hub for veteran services, along with their up and coming project Camp Ponderosa near Bigfork, which will provide housing, therapy services and job training for former servicemen and women. They operate a thrift store at the food pantry, where proceeds go toward their Veterans Service Center programs. They offer laundry, clothing on a seasonal basis and loan out durable medical equipment to low-income veterans.

Erickson runs the pantry with the help of his wife, where he said they aid thousands of veterans a year and always manage to get folks the help they need. He said he remembers one young man who always came into the food pantry drunk and high.

“I just kept visiting with him and counseling with him. And I'm not a counselor, but I used my life experiences. ‘You've never been in that hole? Yes, I have. And I did get myself out of this hole, and I’m never going back into that again.’ After four years he graduated college with honors, clean and sober,” Erickson said.

Erickson said he’s “got the greatest family in the world” with 12 grandkids and three great-grandchildren. He believes veterans fail to get the necessary support and is happy their work helps others going through hard times.

“I don't know what you call it, but I enjoy helping and if I can give somebody a helping hand up out of a hole to help him make his life better, that's cool,” Erickson said.

“He went through a lot of obstacles growing up and through his life,” Davis-Hall said. “It sounded like there was always something that gave him more work, to work harder and to keep going, to go forward, with no giving up.”

Those interested in learning more about the North West Montana Veterans Food Pantry or any of their associated projects, can find out more at veteransfoodpantry.org.