GAINESVILLE ‒ They are sometimes called the “One Percent” because they make up under one percent of the country's population. They are the men and women who put their lives on hold to serve in the military to protect their fellow Americans. There were nearly 2.4 million military personnel in the five branches of the Armed Forces in 2020. Comparing this with the U.S. population of 329.5 million, active military only makes up 0.727 percent.
Military service can leave scars, both mental and physical, that can affect a veteran’s future once out of the military. There has always been a large number of veterans who fall on hard times and homelessness, and on any given night, 40,056 veterans are homeless. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only seven percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly 13 percent of the homeless adult population are veterans.
Additionally, a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.
In Alachua County, there is a group that offers support for all veterans and active military. The American Legion Auxiliary 16 (ALA) is comprised of spouses, mothers, daughters, granddaughters, and sisters of U.S. war veterans. They are a separate entity from the American Legion, which is a veteran’s organization, but share the same values and dedication to supporting those who served. For the past 10 years, the ALA has held an event for homeless or in transition veterans, providing a thanksgiving dinner, clothing and footwear donations and what’s called a “blessing bucket,” which contains needed household and sanitary supplies as well as blankets.
Most of the supplies are either donated by other veterans’ organizations or provided as monetary funds or supplies from sponsors such as Rural King, Sav A Lot, Winn Dixie, Home Depot and Sandy's Place. The veterans were also offered free haircuts provided by volunteer barbers.
This year’s event held in early November featured a number of veteran supporters, including local singer Josh Tayler who sang the National Anthem. ALA Chaplain and event coordinator Ronna Jackson spoke to the veterans, expressing that the ALA was honored to help these men who had served their country. Jackson, a gold star mother whose son, John Reiners, was killed in action, now dedicates much of her time supporting other servicemen and veterans.
Guest speaker Vicki Jackson-Herndon delivered a moving story of her veteran father who abandoned the family when she was 11 and how he lived in poverty, homelessness and substance abuse. Jackson-Herndon said that for years she hated her father for what he did, but after finding religion she reached out in her early twenties. Over the next few years, she saw the hard times her father suffered mentally, and they reconnected until his passing. Her message to veterans is that there are people who care about them, and they are not alone. In dedication to her father's memory, she created the Blessing Bucket program.
State of Florida ALA President Jane Hardacre expressed the state's support for veterans, and Ronna Jackson presented her with a stuffed plush rainbow pillow signed by all staff and veterans present. The meal was served by ALA staff, including several male veterans who were associated with ALA women members.
While there were donated shoes and clothes for veterans to take, one homeless veteran could not find a pair that fit to replace his worn-out shoes. A male staff member took off his own shoes to give him. Later, Taylor gathered the veterans in a circle to all sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to show the camaraderie between all who served.
“We want them to know they are not forgotten and there are people here to lend a helping hand and support them,” Jackson said. “Everyone deserves a second chance, especially those that served their country.”
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