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WWII veteran served his country, now he begs on Tampa streets

TAMPA

Anthony Jacondino, 84, huddles in the narrow median, head low, blasted by wind as cars hurtle past in both directions. • When the light turns red, drivers notice his hat, medal and sign: World War II vet in need of help. • Some ignore him. Others give him money but tell him not to spend it on alcohol.

"I say, 'No, I don't drink,' " Jacondino said.

If they stopped longer, he could describe driving a tank in the Philippines or killing a Japanese soldier. He could talk about the wife who died or the new wife's stroke or falling $400 in the hole each month, before groceries.

A lot of people wave signs on street corners these days, offering sad stories and asking for help, skipping over their jail records and addictions.

But Jacondino's sign doesn't lie.

• • •

Jacondino grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of 13 children. At 18, he joined the Army and went to the Philippines, where he says his platoon staved off Japanese soldiers on the island of Luzon.

The Department of Veterans Affairs confirms that he served in World War II.

Jacondino keeps his discharge papers as evidence, along with vivid memories etched in a younger mind.

He recalls the night an enemy soldier sneaked into his tent and shot his best friend to death. Jacondino grabbed a rifle.

"I took my M1 and I killed him. I killed him," Jacondino said, his voice trembling. "That stays with you."

He re-enlisted. He thought about a career in the Army but his mother dissuaded him. After about three years of service he came home.

Back in Brooklyn, he married a redhead named Sylvia and had two sons. For nearly two decades, Jacondino supported them by doing maintenance work at an apartment tower. When he moved them to Miami Beach in 1965, it was for a job running high rises.

More work led him to Hudson and Clearwater.

Then, without warning, Sylvia died of a heart attack.

Jacondino tried living with his oldest son in Pennsylvania.

"It didn't work out, let's put it that way," said Jacondino.

They haven't spoken in a decade, he said.

His younger son died of cancer. Jacondino lived for years in St. Petersburg's Lutheran Apartments. He adopted a cat and planned to remain a bachelor.

Then he saw the personal ad from Carol Allen. She sounded nice, so he called her. They dated and danced, and he took her to movies. Four years ago, they married, moving into her northwest Hillsborough County apartment.

They lived on Jacondino's $980-a-month Social Security check and money that Carol, now 62, earned by cleaning rooms at a nursing home.

In April, she suffered a minor stroke and had to quit her job. She's right-handed and was left with pain in her right arm. She has two grown daughters with responsibilities of their own.

The bills didn't stop: $750 rent, a $421 car payment, plus about $210 a month in utilities. They owe $900 to University Community Hospital for Carol's medical expenses.

Jacondino has his own health problems. He walks with a limp from arthritis. He had cataract surgery. Sometimes his tinnitus — the loud ringing in his ears — is unbearable. He takes Valium and has trouble sleeping, let alone working.

"At 84, who's going to hire me?"

That's when the idea came to him.

• • •

In early June, he went to Home Depot and bought an orange vest.

He put on his WWII veteran cap. He wrote a message on a cardboard sign, making sure to include "please," and "God bless."

One thing was missing. He walked to his closet and pulled out a small metal box. Inside lay his WWII Victory Medal.

He pinned it to the vest.

His first day, he said, he drove to the intersection of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Fowler Avenue. As he walked to the median, he felt out of place.

He remembers the first donor.

A couple with two children in the backseat stopped at the light. The man handed him $5, and Jacondino thanked him. Then, as the light turned green, the man handed him $10 more.

"He said, 'Thank you for your service,' " Jacondino recalled. "That made me feel good."

• • •

That day, he collected $191. But other panhandlers hassled him until he moved to a less lucrative part of town. Now he averages $50.

If he's feeling up to it, he goes out at daybreak, usually two days a week, and stays up to six hours.

Some drivers tell him he shouldn't be there. He's too frail, too old. They ask if he has applied for veterans benefits.

He tried, but it has been a year and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs still hasn't made a decision. He figures it doesn't help that most of his military records burned in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

Motorist Lisa Lapina, 47, first noticed Jacondino in early December at his new spot at Columbus Drive and Dale Mabry Highway.

She rolled down her window, handed him a couple of dollars and asked why he was there.

He explained his predicament. Lapina immediately empathized. Her father, also an 84-year-old WWII veteran, had trouble getting benefits.

"If my dad didn't have me," she said, "he'd be lost in the system as well."

She kept noticing Jacondino on her way to work, even at 7 a.m. on a 40-degree morning. It bothered her, so she contacted the St. Petersburg Times.

"He really should be taken care of because of his service to his country," she said.

• • •

Jacondino has visited the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg four to six times since the summer, he estimates.

Each time, a representative listens to his complaint of tinnitus, which he says started about two years after he left the service in 1947.

There's a doctor's note on file that states the ringing could have been caused by a tank's booming cannon.

Jacondino thinks that should qualify him for a disability pension.

After inquiries from a Times reporter, veterans officials took a fresh look at his case.

"We will make sure that Mr. Jacondino is aware of the full range of benefits he may be entitled, and that he gets the maximum benefits the law allows as quickly as possible," a prepared statement released Friday states.

Jacondino says the VA has given him short-term assistance in the past.

He knows he doesn't belong on the street. He sees the other panhandlers. A lot of them appear to be alcoholics. They work in pairs, he said. One drinks while the other begs.

They call him "Pop."

He's ashamed to beg and embarrassed to visit food banks.

"It's beneath me," he said.

He thinks a disability pension would get him back on track.

Carol would like for her husband to be safe at home. She, too, worries about their finances.

"I don't have health insurance," she said. "So if push comes to shove, I'll go out there with him."

Times news researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

On video

Follow Anthony Jacondino as he seeks contributions on a Tampa median at video.tampabay.com.

WWII veteran served his country, now he begs on Tampa streets 01/07/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 8, 2011 11:05am]

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