For more than 150,000 veterans, their biggest ordeal may not be the Vietnam War and its aftermath, or dealing with Gulf War syndrome, or even years of discipline in their unit. For them, life’s toughest challenge may be living on the streets.
In the District on Veterans Day, the Central Union Mission paid tribute to homeless and other veterans with a special luncheon to draw attention to the plight of the more than 150,000 veterans nationwide who are without a home on any given night. Leon Jones is one of those veterans.
“It’s a terrific thing what the mission has done for me and for veterans; it’s beautiful because this is a place of God,” he said.
Mr. Jones, 57, was in the Army from 1969 to 1971, serving in a field artillery unit while stationed in Germany. He has been receiving assistance from the mission since 1995 and has been homeless since July.
He praised the efforts of the mission and the Department of Veterans Affairs, with one reservation.
“They need to make it easier and less complicated for veterans to get help. I mean, of course they do fantastic things, but for 150,000 veterans, including myself, to be homeless is a travesty,” he said.
Retired Lt. Col. David Treadwell, executive director of the mission and a Vietnam veteran, echoed Mr. Jones’ remarks.
“What I don’t understand is why do [VA officials] feel that some veterans qualify for help and some don’t. That’s the big question I think this event addresses, because any person who serves should qualify,” he said.
“As a former infantry soldier myself, I am devoted to honoring those who have dutifully served America,” he said.
More than 308,000 veterans experience homelessness in any given year, according to the VA. About 2,400 homeless veterans live in the District.
About 25 veterans were among the special guests at the Central Union Mission’s annual event. Also attending were more than 50 volunteers and clients of the mission, created more than 124 years ago to serve homeless veterans of the Civil War.
Mr. Treadwell presided over the festivities, which included prayers to recognize the service of veterans and a special meal of ham, mashed potatoes, green beans and gravy. Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, gave the keynote speech.
“The Bible says that for those who owe debts, repay debts; and America owes a debt to you,” he said.
“Most of us live under the umbrella of protection that you have provided,” said Mr. Pence, who did not serve in the military.
Charles “Chico” Jones, 73, served in the Army during the 1950-53 Korean War. He has been coming to the mission for several years, receiving food and clothing and housing assistance. This was his first time at the Veterans Day luncheon.
Although Mr. Jones did not speak at the ceremony, he later said he wished he had, so that he could relate the lessons he learned in combat.
“When I first shipped out, most of us didn’t think it was an honorable idea to die for your country, but then I would see a man fall on a grenade to save his friends, and that’s when I realized it is an honor to die for your comrades,” he said.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, another group of lesser-known veterans was honored. The service of women was the theme.
“Women carried the scars of Vietnam just as the men did,” said Diane Carlson Evans, founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation, who delivered the keynote speech at the observance. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the construction of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
Eight U.S. servicewomen, all of whom were nurses, were killed in action during the conflict.
Sgt. Maj. Cynthia Pritchette, who served two years as the Army command sergeant major for the Combined Forces Command - Afghanistan, also spoke.
“The women who served during Vietnam are courageous role models and patriots for those of us who serve today,” she said.