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New Outreach Effort Aimed At Veterans
A group of volunteers has come together at Veterans First in neighboring Riverbank to bring a place of peace and camaraderie to veterans and first responders from throughout the region. VIRGINIA STILL/THE TIMES

A new building has been taken over by an Oakdale resident and United States Marine Corps veteran Duke Cooper, who is on a mission to help area veterans and has created a place where they can exercise or just go to hang out with other veterans and first responders.

The red building on Patterson Road in neighboring Riverbank with the ‘Veterans First’ sign on the front and American flags flying is still in the process of being completed to create a peaceful, social environment. All the work should be done in time for an official grand opening on Saturday, Aug. 13.

“This is the Norman Lubich Veterans First building in Riverbank,” stated Cooper. “I was in the Marine Corps with Norman, he is no longer with us, he died from Agent Orange and I credit him with saving my life.

“So I am proud to fly (display) his picture here.”

Cooper served six years in the Marines and has two race cars through Duke Cooper Racing that he has dedicated to the military. He uses the cars as tools to raise awareness for the veterans. He resides in Oakdale and was fortunate to have his race cars sponsored by The Rear End Shop in Riverbank.

“We take veterans to the races with us and get them involved with the cars,” stated Cooper. “They hang out in the pits with us. We have an old school dragster named Helter Skelter and an old school ‘69 Camaro.”

The idea for the retreat for veterans began a few months ago when the owner of the Rear End Shop, Willie Podesto, offered the building to Cooper rent free.

“It was in pretty sad shape so we had some people that donated money, paint, signs, equipment, and what we do is we are a building where veterans and first responders can come and hang out in a free zone,” added Cooper. “The three rules that we have are no cigarettes, no alcohol, and no dope. What you do at home is your business but here it is a clean environment.”

All the people at the facility are volunteers and they offer flag disposal services and also construct care packages for troops overseas.

Veterans properly dispose of the American flags in two different methods which include burning them or shredding them, which are both a very specific process done at the facility where they recite the Pledge of Allegiance and follow all specifics as set by the government.

There are also grateful civilians that are helping out like Ed McClelland of Operation Creekside, who has a specialty of packing care packages and sending them to active duty service members that are overseas.

“I want to support Duke because this is kind of a rare private endeavor,” said McClelland. “From what I have seen so far it is really effective. Guys come here and we do Bible study here. I am the chaplain for our guys but this is needed in every city in America.

“A place for these vets to go and talk to each other and work through stuff. I am really excited to be a part of this.”

There were 22 care packages prepared on a recent packing day and, according to McClelland, that was tragically ironic, due to 22 also being the number of veterans that take their own lives daily in our country. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is something that many veterans battle when they come home. This facility will hopefully be a place they can find help for that and other service-related issues.

“They use a permanent solution for a temporary problem,” stated Marine veteran Andrew Nard of hoping to help fellow veterans before they get to that point.

Nard and Del Velarde also participate in Task Force Hope along with McClelland where they go camping and go on hikes with veterans to help them deal with PTSD.

Veterans First is accepting donations for the care packages like nuts, granola bars, drink mixes, pop tarts, fruit snacks, beef jerky, gum, sunflower seeds, and trail mix.

The building has not opened for business quite yet but there are several veterans that are helping to get this building completed along with other groups that are collaborating or have shown interest to assist with the Veterans First group, like Mid-Cal Blue Star Moms, Operation Creekside, Task Force Hope, and Ride 2 Recovery.

The grand opening on Aug. 13 at 9 a.m. will be an opportunity to thank a veteran and first responders. There will be active duty and retired veterans at the event where they will have a 25-mile bicycle ride. After the ride there will be a BBQ and car show. The event is free to all who would like to celebrate the veterans and first responders and donations are also accepted.

If veterans are interested in going to a race or for more information on the new Veterans First initiative, contact