Between 50 and 100 Monmouth County homeless military veterans will have homes, security and futures to look forward to thanks to the tenacity of Freeholder Lillian Burry, Congressman Chris Smith and Soldier On, a non-profit organization committed to ending veteran homelessness.
Since 1994, Soldier On has been providing homeless veterans with transitional housing and supportive services. In 2010, Soldier On opened the first Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community, a permanent housing cooperative that provides formerly homeless veterans with safe, sustainable, affordable housing – transitioning them from homelessness to home ownership. This housing model will be replicated nationally as Soldier On continues to change the end of the story for homeless veterans throughout the country.
Thanks to Burry’s efforts for over five years, and funding from the Veterans Administration secured with Smith’s help, Soldier On will build a cooperative veterans housing community on a 12.59 acre site in Tinton Falls near Seabrook Village. Burry, Smith and Soldier On CEO John F. Downing formally announced the plans for the community yesterday at a gathering of government officials and veterans advocates at the Eagle Oaks Country Club in Farmingdale.
“Soldier On has led in the fight to help end veterans homelessness throughout the Northeast,” said Smith, who authored the Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Assistance Law. “The veteran’s housing project to be built in Tinton Falls is the culmination of over five years of collaborative work under the tremendous leadership of Freeholder Burry and Soldier On’s Jack Downing to bring a proven and effective housing model to the county that will provide services for homeless veterans.”
Burry became aware of Soldier On through her relationship with the late Edith T. Nowels. Nowels, the sister of WWII hero Cpl Bud Thorne, for whom the Thorne Middle School in Middletown is named, was a tireless advocate for veterans until her death last year. Burry reached out to Darling five years ago and has been working on bringing the organization to Monmouth County to serve the approximately 300 homeless vets in the county ever since.
As a member of the Fort Monmouth Revitalization Authority, (FMERA), Burry wanted to bring Soldier On to Fort Monmouth. But the organization’s bid for land in the fort was too low. Burry and Tinton Falls Mayor Gerry Turning, also a FMERA member, got to work looking for another location in Monmouth County. The land was donated to Tinton Falls by Seabrook Village. Tinton Falls leased the land to Soldier On for $1.00. The development will fulfill affordable housing obligations of Tinton Falls.
Soldier On has yet to secure financing for the $17 million project. However, Downing said the organization expects to submit a site plan to Tinton Falls within nine months.
Burry made the following remarks about the Soldier On project during last week’s Freeholder meeting:
I have had the privilege of leading a long life in public service and having done so, I can tell you without doubt or hesitation that there is no greater service a citizen of this country can render than service in the military.
In doing this they take on the highest responsibility of citizenship- that of defending our freedoms. With that they also accept all of the immediate risks and dangers that go with that decision.
For most their years of service go well, and when they are over they return to civilian life and transition easily with skills and confidence gained through their military training and experience. For too many others, however, the transition is not so easy. For these soldiers there are unseen wounds that linger on long after they have left their uniforms behind. Moving from a regimented life to one without the formal structure the military provides, can present challenges the rest of us might find difficult to understand. But these can be very real, and because they don’t always come with any outward physical signs, they can be doubly difficult for these veterans to deal with.
Fortunately, there are organizations that are committed to helping our veterans make a successful transition by aiding them with counseling and job training and housing opportunities. No organization does this better than Soldier On.
I am proud to tell you that Soldier On is now making a new home here in Monmouth County.
When you are in public life, you are faced with tasks of all sorts. Some of these are more duties than pleasure. For me, one of the greatest rewards of my service has been the opportunity to serve those who have answered this highest calling. It has taken both time and persistence but no cause is nearer to my heart, and I am so very pleased that the effort is now being rewarded.
I must tell you that this has not been my effort alone. Like most worthwhile undertakings, it has had strong hands and hearts moving it forward. The first person I have to call to your attention is the late great lady Edith Knowles. The American veteran has never had a greater champion than her, and she was the one who brought Soldier On to my attention. I also have to tell you about Jack Downing, who is nothing less than a force of nature. It is through his dynamic leadership that Soldier On is what it is today. The third person who has to be credited is Congressman Chris Smith. He has been a dedicated supporter throughout this process, and his work in Washington has been invaluable.
When I say he has been a supporter throughout the process, I have to tell you that the process has been a long one. It began in the early days of transitioning Fort Monmouth. The idea was immediately greeted with enthusiasm and recognition that it was something that very much belonged within our plans. The challenge was to find the right place for it to fit into the evolving process of community design. It needed to have enough land and a welcoming setting while still having access to resources for its residents. In an area already as densely developed as ours, it posed a difficult challenge.
That’s when Gerry Turning, the mayor of Tinton Falls, council president Gary Baldwin and the rest of their municipal government colleagues stepped up. Tinton Falls committed to providing a beautiful piece of land close to Seabrook Village. This ten acre site will provide enough room in a perfect setting for Soldier On to build a first class facility and provide the services that our veterans need and deserve.
I have been proud to do my part in finding a Monmouth County home for Soldier On, and I promise you that I will continue to be an active supporter as it moves from design through construction to the day that it opens its doors and welcomes its very first veteran home.
Muriel J. Smith contributed to his article