October 17, 2009

G.I. Go, City of Newark, Northern New Jersey Stand Down Committee Host Veterans’ Stand Down at JFK Center; One-Day Effort Assist Homeless Veterans

Homeless veterans were bussed to the center, where they were given hot food by National Guard-manned mobile canteens, receive donated clothing, and get counseling about employment services, veterans’ benefits, substance abuse programs, vocational rehabilitation, recovery programs, legal services, and even photo identification cards.

NEWARK, NJ - Mayor Cory A. Booker and GI Go Fund Executive Director Jack Fanous announced today that the City of Newark joined with Stand Down of North Jersey, Inc., the New Jersey State National Guard, the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the federal Veterans’ Administration to host the annual “Northern New Jersey Stand Down for Homeless Veterans,” a one-day outreach effort to assist homeless veterans and their dependents, at the John F. Kennedy Recreation Center, today. The Center is located at 211 West Kinney Street (entrance on Howard Street).

Working with partners at the federal, state, and county level, the City turned the Kennedy Center into a one-day, one-stop center for homeless veterans from across North Jersey, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Homeless veterans were bussed to the center, where they were given hot food by National Guard-manned mobile canteens, receive donated clothing, and get counseling about employment services, veterans’ benefits, substance abuse programs, vocational rehabilitation, recovery programs, legal services, and even photo identification cards. All services offered are free to veterans and their family members.

“Last year the GI Go Fund and our caring partners assisted some 478 veterans from across our City and region get the benefits they are entitled to and the support and love they deserve,” Mayor Booker said in a statement. “This year we hope to reach out to more of our heroes, and help them get their lives on track, so that they can enjoy the blessings of the liberty they helped defend and preserve.”

At the JFK Center, veterans received “dance cards” listing all the stations they would visit and services they could sign up for. After that, they received haircuts, medical checks, and then counseling and information from private and public agencies. That was followed with lunch cooked by New Jersey Army National Guardsmen and women, and the issuance of a full range of donated winter clothing, including boots, underwear, ski caps, pants, and personal toiletries. More than 200 veterans were bussed in or walked up to the center.

“This Stand Down for Homeless veterans is a positive step in the right direction to ensure that the Men and Women who once fought to defend our streets do not live on them today. However, we must remember that it is only a step on the long journey that these veterans of our nation’s military must travel to fully rehabilitate their lives and return to being prosperous members of a society their courage helped to preserve. It is our organizations pledge to pave the way for this journey and see to it that we fulfill Mayor Booker’s pledge of ensuring that no veteran is forgotten,” said Mr. Fanous.

Sgt. Jamal Hogan, a Newark native, graduate from Arts High School, and Air National Guard Licensed Practical Nurse, checked the veterans’ blood pressure. “I volunteered to do this,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for eight years. This is really important. It’s our duty to provide service to these veterans.” Sgt. Hogan himself has done three tours in Iraq.

Salvation Army Capt. Vangeri Dupigny, who heads the Army’s Newark Urban Ministry and its programs for veterans, talked about the differences between veterans returning from Vietnam and those coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. “The Iraqi veterans are often National Guardsmen, who came straight from their families and jobs, spend a year or even two years in Iraq, then go straight back to their families and jobs, without time or counseling to decompress from the stress of combat, and they break down from that delayed stress. Further, home and office environments have difficulty coping with the emotional needs of freshly returned combat veterans. “They can get isolated. And sometimes marriages break up.”

She noted that Guardsmen often join up at age 17, and are thus younger than the regulars they serve alongside, and are more vulnerable to emotional impact. “We make sure they get fellowship with each other, so together they can work through what they’ve experienced, and we work with their families. Together, they slowly come out of the experience in combat.”

Organizations providing personnel and services to the event included the Bergen County Board of Social Services; GI Go, Inc.; National Association of County Veterans Service Officers of Union County; New Jersey Army and Air National Guard; New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs; New Jersey Department of Labor; Newark Emergency Services for Families; NewarkWorks; Newark Department of Child and Family Well-Being; the Salvation Army; US Department of Veterans Affairs; and the New Jersey Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The veterans came to address many issues, such as mental health counseling, legal services, and Agent Orange effects. Jesse Witherspoon, an Army Vietnam veteran and Iselin native, needed to sort out medical claims about his Hepatitis. “I came here two years ago, and they helped me then,” he said. “They’ll help me now.”

Eric Hedgespeth, who served in the Army from 1978 to 1984, said, “I got what I needed for my issues.” The Newark native is battling drugs and alcohol.

However, Sarah Bewley, another Newark resident, came “for the comradeship.” She served in US Army intelligence in Vietnam from 1972 to 1975. “I come every year, to get the latest information on veterans’ programs and health care benefits,” she said. “But I also meet five or six friends from my old Army days here every year.

“This is a good program for the well-being of our veterans,” she said. “It’s well-planned, and well-done, and treats veterans with respect and dignity. Veterans are getting more respect now when they come home. We’re being recognized for what we do, and I’m glad I served when I did.”

For more information on the event, contact Gary R. Englert, Director of the New Jersey Department of Military & Veterans’ Affairs Division of Veterans Services, at (609) 530-6962.

The G.I. Go Veterans Transition Center of Newark is a non-profit office, which provides and coordinates a vast array of services and support to veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Currently operating from a centralized location in Newark City Hall, The G.I. Go Veterans Transition Center provides veterans with support for VA enrollment, mental wellness, securing employment, education advancement, and financial support, among other things. The center’s opening is unique, as it is the first-ever partnership between a municipality and a non-governmental organization (NGO) to support veterans and address their issues in the nation’s history.

The center has seen and communicated with nearly 350 veterans since its inception in November 2008, connecting them with the VA and state agencies for the benefits entitled to them. In addition nearly 5,000 veterans from across the state and 600 Newark Veterans have attended G.I. Go Job Fairs, taking the opportunity to meet with 150 different employers. G.I. Go outreach events have reached 600 veterans, 300 of which are homeless, connecting them with the various federal, state and non-profit agencies dedicated to assisting our nation’s veterans. G.I. Go’s financial assistance program has helped 16 different veteran families avoid foreclosure, eviction, and utility shut-offs, and provided 26 different families with much needed emergency grocery assistance.

For more information on other G.I. Go Fund programs, call the G.I. Go Veterans Transition Center at (973) 802-1479.