RENO, Nev. — When Shane Whitecloud meets a homeless veteran, he often thinks: "There but for the grace of God, go I."

A few years ago, the Navy veteran had been diagnosed with Crohn's disease — a painful and often debilitating disease that affects the digestive tract — that required surgery, medication and bed rest. He lost his job and his insurance; was going through a divorce; and was trying to care for himself and a young son.

"It got tough," Whitecloud, 39, said. "It got to the point where I was worried how I was going to make my rent payment. I had friends who came out and helped me a lot. I had one friend who would bring me groceries and I had other friends who came forward and helped me out financially so I could make my rental payments and get by. It took several months."

Now a case worker for the Reno-based Northern Nevada Veterans Resource Center, Whitecloud's job and his passion is to help homeless veterans.

In one of his part-time jobs, that of a professional musician and lead singer in the southern rock band Seasons of Insanity, the passion to help veterans carries over.

Whitecloud, who also works part-time as a disc jockey on Reno radio, might not fit the mold of what one would imagine a veteran's case worker to look like. He has long hair, tattoos and piercings. In other words, he looks like a guy who's in a rock band.

"I don't think people know I'm a veteran when they first meet me," he said with a laugh. "I'm not exactly the clean-cut sight you'd expect. There was one time I was supposed to be working at a Reno Homeless Connect event for the Veterans Resource Center; they wouldn't let me in at first. They thought I was homeless.

"Once (the veterans) do find out that I'm a vet, and they see my demeanor — I'm a really friendly guy — they kind of open up more when they're sitting across from me."

The case manager job presents its own set of challenges, he said.

"Veterans are a unique bunch when it comes to asking for assistance," he said. "There's a lot of pride and not a lot of trust. But once you can open up that communications gap, you can start to get them the help. I can relate to what they've been through to a certain level."

Many of the veterans served are from the Vietnam era, but the resource center also is seeing an increase in the number of veterans from Desert Storm, and the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to facing homelessness, the veterans might also have post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments.

Seeing people struggle is the hardest part for Whitecloud.

"I'm an artistic person, I'm very emotional and I'm a very empathetic person," he said. "I've had a few veterans come into my office and their individual cases really tugs at your heartstrings. I've had those moments after where I just had to lay down on a couch and shed a few tears. I don't have a switch that can turn it off and on. But when you are able to help them and when you see them down the road, it really, really makes you feel good that you had a hand in that."

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