'/> Uncommon Hours: Remembering homeless vets on Veterans Day
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Remembering homeless vets on Veterans Day

Fund helps homeless veterans, remembers their sacrifice
By Bob Sommer

(Published in The Kansas City Star, Nov. 9, 2011)

My son Francis was one of the lucky ones. He knew it, too. Many of the soldiers he served with in Iraq and Afghanistan had no one to write to them or send packages. In these wars, a “Dear John” letter may come as an email or simply a drained bank account, while soldiers are posted to some of the worst places on Earth.

My wife and I saw this for ourselves — soldiers at Francis’s homecomings who had no one to greet them, nowhere to go, and then later, nowhere to go when they left the service. A report issued jointly by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that veterans account for 13 percent of America’s homeless population — nearly 145,000 men and women.

The unsettling numbers don’t stop there. The Department of Defense estimates that some 400,000 veterans have sustained traumatic brain injuries. Further, according to the VA, 20 percent of the suicides in the U.S. are veterans.

After he left the service, Francis struggled with health issues, cognitive problems and PTSD. He told us once that he’d be dead in six months if he didn’t live with us at home. Tragically, we did lose him about six months later in a car accident, one of the leading causes of death among returning vets.

He was being treated at the Kansas City VA, where he also served as a volunteer. He helped distribute clothing to homeless vets and served them his own recipe for chili. He’d become an exceptional chef and was near completion of the Johnson County Community College Culinary Arts program.

When he passed away, my wife and I contacted the VA to set up a fund for homeless veterans in his name. We thought a few hundred dollars might land there in lieu of money spent on flowers. Melissa Jacobson, Chief of Voluntary Services, told me that funds were needed for basic items like driver’s license fees or safety shoes for a new job.

But something unexpected happened. Melissa called several weeks after Francis’s funeral to tell me that thousands had poured in — from friends, family, soldiers, even strangers. She became choked up on the phone. So did I, but that happens often to me these days.

About 100 homeless veterans had recently been placed in housing through a program funded by the VA and HUD. But Melissa said these vets still needed food and the means to prepare it. Her idea: cooking kits, with utensils, pots, pans, and food, to help jumpstart them in their new homes. She thought this would be a good way to honor Francis. I couldn’t have agreed more.

These vets struggle with poor health, mental illness, addiction, unemployment, and more. Through this program, they have a chance for a fresh start, and their progress is monitored through the Kansas City VA.

My wife and I received dozens of very moving letters from veterans who benefited from these gifts. Their expressions of gratitude are overwhelming, but I can’t imagine they’re more grateful than we are, as we see Francis remembered so well.

To share in the gift of aiding homeless veterans in Kansas City, please send your donation to Kansas City VA Voluntary Services 135, 4801 Linwood Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64128. Make checks payable to the KCVA.

If you wish, please mention the Francis D. Sommer Memorial Fund on the memo line.

For more information, including photos and excerpts from letters written by veterans, go to http://uncommon-hours.blogspot.com/p/fds-memorial-fund.html.

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