A new veterans organization to aid and honor military personnel returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in the region has been given life on the North Suncoast, with hopes it will grow nationwide.
Several hundred people turned out for a recent inaugural planning meeting of Sand Soldiers of America at the Palace Grand in Spring Hill, said the group's founder and president, Pasco Sheriff Bob White.
The mission for Sand Soldiers "is based on the belief that all those who serve their country deserve respect and comfort when they return home," the organization states in a media release.
"We're sending our children into the meat grinder," White said. "They come back with traumas and injuries. They've sacrificed their lives, and many of them will never be the same.
"Young soldiers of today aren't going to hang out with the American Legion, the Vietnam vets," White suggested. "And there is no particular place for them to fellowship. ... We're not putting together a bar, not a clubhouse environment. We're about serving sand soldiers."
Serving means helping them find jobs, providing social services such as occupational counseling, domestic counseling, marriage counseling, child care — anything a veteran and his or her family might need, White said.
"We'll reach out and find them and tell them how to get their refrigerator repaired," he mentioned as an example.
The task is huge, he acknowledged.
"That takes a lot of money and manpower," White said. "We don't have a lot of money now."
Attorney Jeff Lucas, a former Army officer on the board of directors, said major contributions so far have included $10,000 in seed money from the law firm of Lucas, Green & Magazine and $5,000 contributed by funeral home owner-community activist Tom Dobies, both of Pasco County. Money has been spent to construct a website, purchase stationery and other office supplies, and to make T-shirts emblazoned with the name Sand Soldiers of America and its logo.
The registered nonprofit organization's first challenge is identifying sand soldiers, White said, noting that military records are not available to the group. So, it is asking recent veterans to make themselves known via the website — sandsoldiersofamerica.com — or by contacting an official by phone: White or his executive assistant, Terry Phayre, at (727) 844-7726, or Yvette Behmer at (727) 849-5353.
The same sources will compile lists of businesses and employers willing to offer jobs to returning veterans, most of whom are young.
To individuals whose compassion has lacked for veterans of the sand after hearing some say that they signed up with the military "for the money," White points out: "Our children are stepping up because there are no jobs."
Sand Soldiers of America aims to see that the veterans don't face the same employment hopelessness that many encountered before they joined the military.
"If we're willing to stand in the airport and applaud them," White said, "we ought to be willing to give them a job."
And the new organization also hopes to foster a greater patriotism among the general populace.
"We honor our war dead, the Gold Star mothers, ... but it seems we have taken (the sand soldiers') sacrifice for granted," said White, an Air Force veteran of the 1970s, honorably discharged after basic training due to a medical problem.
The Sand Soldiers' first public appearance — "to raise awareness," White said — will be a parade of military folks in uniform and a showcase of military assets, plus a program of speakers, Oct. 16 and 17 at the Cotee River Bike Fest in New Port Richey.
Other Sand Soldiers of America leaders, all from Pasco County, include vice president Bill Beal, secretary Vinnie Rega, treasurer Tim Howells, director Ken Greenly and judge advocate Gary Mobbs.
"This is the fledgling beginning," White said. "If it takes on and spreads, we'll be pleased."
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.