Good Neighbor Phil Landis: Walking Hope for Vets

As chairman of Veterans Village of San Diego, this former platoon leader helped the charity refinance and stabilize their real estate holdings. VVSD now encompasses a five-acre site with 127 treatment beds and is working to expand their mission of providing food, clothing, housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and job training and placement.

Forty years ago, Phil Landis was a platoon leader in Vietnam. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Combat Infantryman Badge. But for 30 years following his combat duty, Landis blocked out every memory of that horrific experience. On Memorial Day of 1996, however, his attitude — and his life — changed dramatically.

“I went to the rededication of the Vietnam Peace Memorial in Balboa Park [in San Diego],” says Landis, 65, a sales associate with RE/MAX Ranch & Beach in San Diego. “I hadn’t gone to a service before, and I didn’t plan to stay long.” But the memories came flooding back. “I couldn’t stop crying and realized that I really needed help dealing,” he recalls.

Landis sought counseling and attended his first Stand Down for Homeless Veterans, a three-day event held by Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD), an intensive rehab and training facility for homeless veterans.

“Think of Stand Down as a tent city,” says Landis. “It offers haircuts, showers, and hot meals; a legal court that adjudicates misdemeanors; and dental and medical care.”

More important, “Stand Down is the one place where homeless veterans feel safe,” says Landis. “It gives them hope that they can turn their lives around.”

That first Stand Down event kindled Landis’ desire to make a difference. That year, he joined the VVSD board of directors. He has been chairman since 2001.

“I’m a numbers guy, so when I first joined the board, I went through the books and realized the organization was having financial difficulties,” he says. Through his experience in real estate (he has been in the business now 21 years) and his community connections, Landis and the organization were able to secure roughly 75 funding streams.

“Phil’s being a real estate salesperson has benefited us in a huge way,” says Al Pavich, president and CEO of VVSD, who has worked with Landis for nine years and is a veteran of the Vietnam and the 1991 Persian Gulf wars. “The first thing he did was help us refinance and stabilize our real estate so that we actually own properties.” VVSD now has a net worth of almost $16 million, up from $1.5 million when Landis first got involved.

VVSD has 100 employees and encompasses a five-acre site with 127 treatment beds. A 112-bed facility is scheduled to open in 2008. VVSD provides food, clothing, housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and job training and placement.

In addition, through Landis’ leadership, the board got stronger, eventually adding a former surgeon general, lawyers, nurses, and more influential community members.

Landis considers himself a facilitator, but he also attends resident meetings and graduations from the rehab program and just stops by to talk to homeless vets.

“Phil is walking hope for them because he’s come through adversity to get where he is now, and they can see by example that you can make it out of a bad situation,” says Pavich. “Phil’s a combat veteran, so the concept that you never leave anyone behind is cemented in his heart.”

No one knows this better than Michael Charter, a Vietnam veteran who came to the VVSD in 1998.

“Without the VVSD, I’d be dead — that’s the bottom line,” says Charter, who came to the facility for therapy to treat drug and alcohol addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Phil and I are both combat vets. We just look at each other and understand, and that’s invaluable. The VVSD makes me feel safe. None of this would have happened without Phil’s guidance,” says Charter, who now is sober and works at VVSD as the assistant to the post-traumatic stress director.

This year, 750 homeless veterans attended the Stand Down. In addition to Vietnam vets, “we have World War II vets and Korean War vets, and 35 percent are from our current conflict. We expect that number will grow dramatically,” says Landis. “Most of these men and women are co-diagnosed with drug and alcohol issues, one-third are chronically mentally ill, and most are malnourished.”

The treatment program at VVSD is based on military discipline and a 12-step approach. “Our new residents are placed in a 16-bed squad-bay environment,” says Landis. “This reinforces what they may have learned in basic training and brings them back to the last time they ever succeeded at anything.”

VVSD’s rehab program boasts an impressive success rate. “After one year, 83 percent remain clean and sober, aren’t homeless, and have maintained or increased their income,” says Pavich. “They’re living lives without crime and meeting their child-support requirements. They’re living their lives differently, and they owe a lot of that to Phil and his vision for the future.”

But for Landis, it’s just as much about healing himself as it is helping others heal. “For me, it’s therapeutic,” says Landis. “There’s a redemptive value in being so involved in Veterans Village.”

Contact Landis at RE/MAX Ranch & Beach; 16730 Bernardo Center Dr., San Diego, CA 92128; 858/485-1700;;

Contact Veterans Village of San Diego at 4141 Pacific Highway; San Diego, CA 92110; 619/497-0142;