CLEARWATER — Local veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had plenty of problems fitting back into civilian life. Often plagued by physical and mental ills, problems with alcohol and a sense of disorientation, many find themselves on the street, homeless and hungry.
Help is available, though. In conjunction with other community organizations, the nonprofit Abilities Foundation of Pinellas, the fundraising arm of Abilities Inc. of Florida, is concentrating on aiding wounded soldiers.
"We are all about job placement and housing for disabled Floridians," said Frank DeLucia, chief executive officer of the foundation since 2002, "but most recently we are focused on returning veterans."
DeLucia expressed concern for the new waves of soldiers who often are suffering from the effects of bombs.
"We have a new name for a common war-related disability," he said. "It's called 'blast.' "
Blasts, he said, come from roadside bombs or suicide bombers and cause blindness, traumatic brain injury, loss of limbs and a variety of injuries that have lasting effects.
"Superimpose typical combat stress on all of that and you have substantial obstacles to transitioning into a successful civilian life," he said.
One of the transition challenges is setting up housekeeping. In October of 2011, the Abilities Guild, an all-volunteer group supporting the foundation, opened the Veterans' Mall off Whitney Road in Clearwater. The mall was the brainchild of longtime guild member Virginia Meyer, 84, a former military wife with a passion to help veterans.
The mall resembles a discount store filled with kitchen, bathroom and bedroom supplies. In the mix are coffee pots, pots and pans, sheets, silverware, and dishes.
"We furnish each veteran with a starter kit, "said Dan Mettee, president of the guild. "In the first 12 months we served 242 of our special veterans and in the last four months 79 more came through."
In addition to household needs, the mall also stocks clothing appropriate for job interviews — jackets, shirts, pants and shoes in all sizes.
DeLucia said the guild couldn't do this work by itself. Local partners make it possible. One partner, the Home Depot Foundation, provided the interior structure for the mall, including flooring, shelving and fixtures. Volunteers from Home Depot did the entire installation.
The Bay Pines VA Medical Center, another partner, helps war-damaged veterans through a therapeutic residential program, preparing them for their next step — job and home. The Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater provides housing for the vets, enabling them to live with dignity in a place of their own.
"The vets contribute 30 percent of their income, mainly from disability checks, for a condo," Mettee said.
Help in finding a job comes from one of the veterans' own, Mike Dunlap, now a veterans' employment specialist working for Abilities. An Indiana native, Dunlap, 53, followed a path similar to other veterans. Serving in the Marine Corps in Okinawa from 1976 to 1982, Dunlap left the service emotionally unsettled and spent years moving from job to job with intermittent periods of homelessness.
He found himself in Florida in 2011, living in his car and showering in a local church. He had $300 to his name. "I heard about Bay Pines at a shelter," Dunlap said, "and I got accepted into their program for homeless vets."
From Bay Pines, Dunlap connected to the Abilities Guild and began to reinvent himself. Now he is dedicated to helping his fellow servicemen and women find work and get their lives together.
If we work together, said DeLucia, the community can help veterans get a new chance at life.
"We're trying to connect the dots among all the organizations out there helping veterans," he said. "We each must do what we do best to help our veterans transition from military to civilian life."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]