When a young Marine or soldier puts on his U.S. military uniform for the first time, he does so with pride, honor and a sense of purpose. And he, or she, knows that with that honor comes the very real possibly that he will give his life for his country. What he likely would never consider, is that if he makes it back to his home soil, his life after military service could be one of homelessness.
Recently USA Today reported that more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are becoming homeless, with those vets between 18 and 30 accounting for a disproportinate number of the homeless population.
Jack Downing, president and CEO of Soldier On is a passionate advocate for ending, not reducing, homelessness among our veterans. His Massachusetts-based program works in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs to put our returning servicemen and women, who have fallen out of society and a homelife, back into a community.
"If you're a vet and you're hanging in the park, we have a place for you to come home to tonight," Downing says in a compelling promotional video for Soldier On. "If you're a vet and you're getting out of jail we don't want you going to sleep on somebody's couch on their porch while you're trying to find a job. We want you coming home to our house. We'll get you settled in. We'll get you healthy, help you find a job, get you on your feet.
The residential program, with a base in Leeds, MA, offers vets equity ownership in a home in a veteran community there where men, and women in some cases, can recover from addictions, learn life skills and most importantly, Downing would say, restore their hope and diginity lost in a cylce of emotional pain from post-traumatic stress and failure. For the veterans featured in interviews on the the group's website, say Soldier On was their last stop before death.
Soldier On describes its mission this way:
"Providing formerly homeless veterans with the opportunity to gain a secure place within their community is crucial to Soldier On’s mission changing the end of the story for the veterans we serve."
One resident at one of Soldier On's facilities, with notes of pain and gratitude in his voice, said this about his new home. "It's allowed me to feel like a human again."
Fort Monmouth's redevelopers are in talks with the people of Soldier On to bring the housing and recovery program to the fort property.
Freeholder Lillian Burry, who brought the program to the board of the , told her fellow board members that she sees the program fitting in here at the fort as part of a larger veterans center she hopes will be created.
"It's a program tailor made for Fort Monmouth," Burry told Patch recently.
Talks between FMERA and Soldier On are in their infancy but FMERA's executive director, Bruce Steadman told Patch that as a son of an Army man and as a father of a soldier currently serving in Afganistan, he is committed to making Soldier On a part of Fort Monmouth's future.
"I am not aware of a project that is as much for the people of the military as Soldier On."