This is where the pretense ends.
The utilitarian room at the New Jersey National Guard Armory in Morristown, with concrete floors and bleachers, is the space from which generations of soldiers departed for duty; the space where they returned to the embraces of their families under the well-earned salute of their brothers in arms.
It is also a room of sadness and honor because in June 2004 four members of B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 112th Field Artillery, headquartered in this building — Staff Sgt. Frank Carvill, Staff Sgt. Humberto Timoteo, Sgt. Ryan Doltz and Spc. Christopher Duffy — were killed in Iraq.
There will forever be a silence here.
But for two days this week that silence was pushed aside as the Morris County social service community reached out to take one more step to help homeless veterans find places to live, counseling, jobs, medical care and benefits.
Participating agencies were: New Jersey Fallen Soldiers Foundation, Community Hope and Morris County-SHRM, an affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management, New Jersey Veterans Affairs Healthcare System; the Department of Labor; the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs; the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans; the National Coalition for the Homeless; Morris County Veterans of Foreign War; Morris County American Legion; United Way of Northern New Jersey; Employer Support Guard and Reserve NJ; One Stop Center Dover Regional offices; Family Service of Morris County; Operation Chillout; Community Soup Kitchen and Outreach Center; Eric Johnson House; Homeless Solutions; Interfaith Food Pantry; Salvation Army of Morristown; Morris County Human Services and Dress for Success Morris County.
Jennifer Stivers, director of supportive services for veteran families for Community Hope, said they hoped to see more than 200 veterans over the two days. Some of the veteran were living in temporary housing, shelters, or crashing on couches of friends or relatives, while a few were camping out in the woods, she said.
Ray Chimileski, national coordinator of Operation Chillout, a homeless veterans outreach program, said a turnout of 200 veterans would be good result for a first-time event in the Jersey suburbs. Such events in Newark draw 600 to 700 vets, he said.
The vets who did participate met such folks as Robert Pinero from the Zufall Health Center, which provided its medical van for check-ups, or Charles Jurgensen, a veterans service officer for Morris County, or James Just of Affinity Bank, who is also a Reservist, Christopher Kerney from MilitaryVetJobs.com, or Michelle Roers and Jodi Miciak from the United Way, whose agency offers funding for support programs.
They would have also been greeted by the enthusiastic volunteers passing out shoulder bags of toiletries, sleeping bags and blankets and the military recruiters stuffing Marine surplus backpacks with blankets and clothes.
But mostly they would have been greeted by the spirit of cooperation and thanks. All morning Friday individual counselors sat with veterans to talk about their situations. Forms were filled out and information recorded.
One more step forward.
His eyes were jittery. But he filled out the questionnaire with neat handwriting. He had been working on a data-entry project for a state department when the funding ran out. It was, he said, a program that was attempting to centralize data on veterans from several sources. The irony made him chuckle.
He is an Marine veteran, and he is used to moving around a lot, used to being homeless. It was a little easier in the South, where is his from, he said.
Next month he has a chance to get a job as a truck driver. He had a commercial driver’s license. He thinks that job will suit his restless nature better than sitting at a desk with a computer.
The big man tried a boxing career in Las Vegas after he served with the 82nd Airborne Division. But it didn’t last. He was in Morristown Friday doing his job: Driving fellow vets to the event. He thought there might be more, but many in Newark didn’t want to make the trip to Morristown. So he drove the willing, a task he was glad to take on. There’s a lot of vets he know who are in bad shape, he said. Jobless, homeless, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Distrust. He said he know the guys who served a decade before him – the Vietnam-era vets – were scorned when they returned. And the current veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan return home with brain injuries and missing limbs. Helped is needed, he said.
Operation Stand Down is the continuation of efforts in Morris County to help areas veterans.
The event is modeled on Project Homeless Connect, started in Morris County in 2004, which brings services to the homeless community. As that event grew, organizers identified a growing number of veterans among the homeless population.
At the same time, tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan were ending for thousands of New Jersey Reservists and National Guard members, many of whom served multiple tours.
In 2009 the United Way created the Front Line Fund to help pay for needed services. The goal, with its partner Leadership Morris, a group affiliated with the Morris County Chamber of Commerce, was to raise $100,000.
The fund was an outgrowth of an efforts dating back to 2007 when county’s business community pledged its support for hiring veterans. That start was followed in subsequent years by a joint effort by the county’s nonprofit community, government agencies, business community and the leadership at Picatinny Arsenal to formalize plans into a community covenant.
In 2010, the fund helped 60 military families get counseling through Family Service of Morris County, based in Morristown. Twenty-nine families received counseling for issues including post traumatic stress disorder, and 12 others which received financial assistance to avoid foreclosure, evictions or to pay for food and utilities.
On its own, Community Hope worked with partners and the Veterans Administration to develop Hope for Veterans, a 95-bed transitional housing and counseling unit at Lyons VA Center, and then this year, opened Valley Brook Village, 62 units of veterans housing.
In addition, Community Hope was awarded a renewal grant of nearly $1 million to sustain and expand its one-year old Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) Program. The SSVF Program has helped more than 80 veteran families to avert homelessness and rapidly be re-housed since the program was launched on Veterans Day 2011. Community Hope expects to assist more than 100 additional veteran families.
The local efforts are part of a national effort to address joblessness and homeless for U.S. Veterans
From 2008 to 2011, veterans’ unemployment rose 5.1 percentage points, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The civilian unemployment rate rose approximately 2.5 percentage points in that period.
In 2011, the unemployment rate for Iraq And Afghanistan-era veterans was 12.1 percent and was more than 30 percent for those veterans 24 or younger.
The survey also showed that the 2010 unemployment rates for veterans with higher levels of education were lower than for those with less education.
The 100,000 Homes Campaign assessed veterans’ homelessness nationwide and concluded: “As a group, veterans were 11 percentage points more likely to suffer from at least one condition linked to increased risk of death among the homeless population, which means the men and women who risked their lives defending America may be far more likely to die on its streets.”
Further, the report said, “among the 62 percent of homeless veterans who reported two or more years of homelessness, over 61 percent reported a serious physical health condition, 55 percent reported a mental health condition, 76 percent reported a substance abuse habit, and 32 percent reported all three.”
Annual surveys say that in New Jersey there are roughly 6,500 homeless veterans. In Morris County the number has averaged 60 to 75 annually in recent years.
Nationally, recent surveys show that on any given night 107,000 U.S. veterans are homeless.
Given such numbers, small steps are celebrated.
Anthony Oakes, the director of veterans services for Community Hope, said his agency and Morris Habitat for Humanity are rehabbing a home in Chester Township that will have three rental units for veterans. When completed the home will contain one 2-bedroom unit and two 2-bedroom units that will be offered at below-market rates to qualified veterans.
That is how the presence ends and healing begins.