Face of Defense: Army Wife Helps Vets With 'Open Arms'
By Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown
Army News Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 23, 2010 Dedie Davis knows what it's like to be homeless.
Dedie Davis, an Army spouse and founder of Operation Open Arms, a nonprofit organization that provides food and supplies to homeless veterans and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, presents a $3,000 donation to PTSD and homeless veteran programs benefitting Seattle and American Lake Veterans. Photo courtesy of Dedie Davis
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Davis and her two children slept in their car for a short time in 1998 until family and friends helped them get back on their feet.
So passing out food and hugs, often venturing into homeless encampments in the Seattle area, doesn't faze her.
Davis, founder and president of Operation Open Arms, a nonprofit organization that provides food and supplies to homeless veterans and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, explained her passion for charitable work is fueled by her personal experiences.
Davis is the wife of Sgt. Byron Davis, a Marine-turned-Army Reserve soldier with three overseas tours under his belt.
Davis said she first became interested in helping soldiers with PTSD after witnessing the changes her husband experienced after his deployment to Iraq in 2004. "It was very easy to tell that he wasn't OK," she said.
In support of her husband's treatment, Davis attended a Veterans Affairs in-patient program with him. It was then that Davis learned not all veterans have a support system, or the means to receive the proper care needed to make progress.
Now Davis fundraises for both PTSD sufferers and the homeless, something she said comes naturally to her. "I've always tried to find someone who is less fortunate than me, and help them," she said.
After her experience with homelessness, Davis said she often took her children to volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. She said she raised them with the mindset that no matter what the circumstances, there is always someone living in more dire conditions.
"They grew up knowing that that's what we did," Davis said of volunteering. "I just think it needs to be done. I just hope that if it was me, someone would help."
It was this outlook on helping others that led Davis to founding Operation Open Arms.
On her way to work in 2007, Davis repeatedly saw a white, plastic deck chair propped underneath an overpass. Something about that chair grabbed her attention, and she knew she couldn't be content until she discovered who it belonged to.
"As hard as I tried, I could not shake the feeling that I needed to go there," she said.
After several attempts to convince her husband to accompany her under the overpass, he conceded and escorted a four-months-pregnant Davis through ankle-high mud to find the chair's owner. What they found was three men living under the bridge. One of them was a Vietnam War veteran.
At first, the men were wary of the Davis’ presence and intentions, but when they learned that Byron was a soldier and his wife was pregnant, they became more at ease, she said.
The homeless veteran had a brain injury and a metal plate in his skull, but thought the only place for him in society was on the streets, Davis said. She and her husband tried to help the men, offering them alternatives to being homeless, but they declined any help aside from donations of food and supplies, she said.
They continued to visit the men over the next year, yet "they were almost non-accepting of the things I was giving them," she said, explaining that even being homeless, the men retained their pride.
One day, Davis said, they went looking for the men under the bridge, but they were gone.
So Davis took her help for the homeless to Seattle's streets, visiting known homeless encampments and "tent cities," bringing donations of food, cold-weather gear and any other supplies they ask her for.
Armed with 25 volunteers, Davis runs her organization in her free time, taking no pay for herself or her volunteers.
Davis' approach to helping others recently caught the attention of the E! Channel and was featured in a special news piece on PTSD called "E! Investigates: Military Wives."
During taping for the show, Davis took host Laura Ling on one of her trips to drop off food for the homeless, and the reaction among the homeless population was mixed. Some were grateful for the assistance, others, possibly scared by the camera crew, refused Davis' care bags.
"It's upsetting," Davis said of those who refuse her assistance. "You want to help out as many people as possible."
One encounter during filming turned hostile, she said, when a Vietnam veteran began shouting at her. "This man got in my face, and was yelling about the bad treatment he received when [U.S. troops] returned from Vietnam," she said. "’Where were you 35 years ago?’" she said he asked her.
Unfazed, Davis answered that she was still in diapers 35 years ago, which made the man laugh and quelled his anger.
Davis said she enjoys helping veterans, but is saddened to see any of America's former servicemembers on the streets.
"It's an honor for me to be able to go and tell them that I appreciate their service," she said.
Davis explained that on recent trips into homeless encampments, she's noticed more young veterans than in the past. "To me, that's even more confusing," she said.
After the E! Channel's airing, Davis said she received many messages from people who were interested in starting Operation Open Arms chapters in their own cities, and Davis is appreciative.
"Maybe I'll rub off on some people," she said. "I feel like I'm supposed to be doing this. I won't stop until I know I've made a difference."