Heroes to Hometowns is an American Legion program that's still trying to gain traction nationally. But it's alive and flourishing in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.
There, a dedicated group of Legionnaires, mostly from Post 14 in St. Petersburg, do all they can to ensure that local servicemembers are transitioning smoothly back into civilian life after they separate. This is, after all, the main tenet of the Heroes to Hometowns program.
As local district H2H coordinator Chris McCabe has found, a returning servicemember's needs can range from menial to dire. McCabe has arranged award ceremonies for severely injured veterans who returned home without ever being properly presented their service medals. He's coordinated trips to Disney World, and he's even helped young 20-somethings fresh from combat find employment to support their families.
"(Heroes to Hometowns) could be something as simple as a welcome home celebration," McCabe says. "It could be an awards ceremony... Or, it could be finding someone a job who hasn't been able to find a job. I can pave the way a little bit for a veteran to go in for a job interview. I can tell the (human relations) officer from a company that I am with The American Legion's Heroes to Hometowns program, and we're trying to help this severely wounded vet. That might get them an interview they wouldn't have gotten."
For three years, McCabe and other Legionnaires from Post 14 have done what they can to cater to the needs of returning servicemembers not just locally but throughout Florida. The plans for the future, however, include something much grander.
It was an idea that was hatched when McCabe and Post 14 Commander Jerry Meekins met a young female veteran who was living in her car. The Legion's traditional channels for monetary aid couldn't provide her any financial relief. She wasn't eligible for Temporary Financial Assistance because she didn't have children. She didn't even have an address, so mailing a check to her wasn't possible.
McCabe and Meekins came up with a solution: start a fund administered by Post 14 to provide direct, on-the-spot financial assistance to any displaced veteran who needs it. Meekins wants to literally be able to walk to his office in the back of the post building and cut a check with the veteran's name on it.
"There's no reason it should take 10 days, two weeks to get a check to somebody in dire need," Meekins says. "This is why I established this program. Someone comes to me and says they need $700. We're going to write them a check for $700, whether you're single, young, old or without children. You're going to get that money. You deserve it."
The fund has already been started and it's growing. A big source of its revenue comes from the annual American Legion Day at nearby Tropicana Field. Each summer, Post 14 brings veterans from local VA hospitals to the venue for a Tampa Bay Rays game. The department Heroes to Hometowns program gets a portion of each ticket sold, and Legionnaires man a merchandise kiosk at the stadium that generates additional revenue for the fund.
An American Legion Day is something that any post or department could potentially set up with their local MLB team, said Dan Newhart, group sales account executive for the Rays. It's just a matter of reaching out to the organization.
"We're all friends. We're all looking for the next big idea, the next big event, the next big thing to do," Newhart says.
Fundraisers are also integral in maturing the fund. Just last month, Post 14 hosted a prime rib and shrimp scampi dinner that brought in around $3,000. Local companies gave donations, and a handful of wounded warriors sat at the front of the banquet room as guests of honor.
It's little things like fundraisers that McCabe and Meekins hope amount to something great. They're ultimate vision is to buy a foreclosed home from a bank and refurbish it into a residential center for veterans who need housing or a place to stay while they receive out-patient treatment at the VA hospital.
"The goal is to have our own house ready for people, similar to maybe a Fisher House, or it could be for the actual wounded veteran while he is undergoing some treatments," McCabe says. "If he doesn't have to be in inpatient care, but he doesn't actually live here near the hospital, maybe we could ease some of the financial burdens for him."
Finalizing the project is a personal mission for Meekins. As a Vietnam veteran, he relates intimately with the young men and women returning home from the Middle East.
"When I came back from Vietnam, it was a whole different world," Meekins says. "They hated us, they cursed at us. We're trying to make sure these kids are welcomed - deservedly so."