For individuals who enlist in the military, the result is often a positive experience. They learn technical trades, build character and relationships, and protect the freedom of a nation. The hard work put forth each day is made worthwhile when the public in which they serve demonstrates its gratitude.

Sadly, this is not the end result for every man or woman who puts on a uniform. Many soldiers, across the nation and locally, return home from service to find themselves in perhaps the worst position in their lives.

Members of the Southern Arizona Veterans Affairs have witnessed a growing problem with veterans transitioning back into civilization. Toni Bravo, a VA spokesperson, said there are almost 400 homeless veterans living in Tucson, largely the result of social or mental issues such as post traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries upon their return.

In an effort to reduce this number, the VA has created a program to qualify homeless veterans for apartments.

“We meet with homeless veterans, with and without families, and assess their situation,” said Bravo. “If they have  a commitment to live in Tucson for one year, they can qualify for this program.”

Currently, the VA has 315 veterans housed, and is currently housing another 25. The VA hopes to qualify 200 more veterans in the next two years. Once housed, these veterans are still in need of common household items. Residents from Splendido at Rancho Vistoso have been some of the first to answer this call.

Partnering with the VA housing program, Splendido residents have come together in a recurring effort to donate 2,200 household items they no longer need or have room for. These items included television sets, towels, furniture, silverware, blankets, and other household essentials.

“Writing a check is one thing,” said Julia Zahn, a Splendido resident who helped organize the event. “Here, we ask for things that can be of use to these veterans when moving into their apartments.”

Retired Army General John Wickham Jr. is another resident of Splendido who voiced his support for the program and donations. Wickham, who was nearly killed during a tour in Vietnam, said the public is often unaware of what soldiers face in wartime. 

“A lot of these kids are 17 or 18 years old that have gone to war,” said Wickham. “Tens of thousands of veterans are coming back with brain injuries. The tragedy of this for the American people is that we have sent these young soldiers to fight wars, and now we are asking them to pay for it.”

Wickham said the mental effects war has on soldiers is often enough to put strains on relationships and divide households, resulting in few options for veterans who find themselves struggling.

“Some of these veterans are afraid to go out in public,” he said. “They are afraid to be next to people. They have seen what has happened to people while serving.”

Wickham applauded Oro Valley’s efforts to support veterans, and cited the Town of Oro Valley website for continuing to add resources for veterans. 

Before loading the truck, 10 volunteer soldiers from Davis Monthan Air Force Base had breakfast with General Wickham, and were given the opportunity to pick his brain on topics of politics, technology, and economics.

“This is a manifestation of the quality we have in uniform,” said Wickham.

Following breakfast, the soldiers wheeled out carts packed with boxed donations and loaded them onto the VA truck. The soldiers then followed Bravo to the VA facility to help unload the items for distribution to the qualified veterans.

“The process is working very well,” said Carol Harrison, a VA volunteer who has since started a similar program in her neighborhood at Heritage Highlands. “We don’t just set them up in an apartment and tell them they’re on their own. They are followed monthly by a social worker and have medical options available through the VA.”

Harrison said she has collected $20,000 worth of donations in one year from residents at Heritage Highlands, and hopes similar programs will sprout up across Tucson as a result.

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