When construction began in early 2021 on a veterans housing complex in Jonesboro, Arkansas, members of VFW Post 1991 wanted to offer assistance to veterans and their families as they moved into the facility. .
As well as helping veterans, it was a way, Post Commander Robert Murphy said, to help improve the image of the VFW as an organization that provides many services.
“It’s not just a bar where veterans share old stories,” said Murphy, a 23-year-old Army veteran who served from 1975 to 1998. “The canteen plays a role for our members, but we do so much more.”
Since taking over as commander three years ago, Murphy has overseen the distribution of fortnightly food boxes to veterans’ families, Christmas toy donations and help with utility bills. Murphy also worked to distribute supplies to the homeless and developed a program to provide service dogs to veterans.
“We know veterans struggle,” he said.
After 1991, members quickly focused on the Jonesboro Veterans Village project.
90 DAYS OF FREE RENT
Armed with a $100,000 federal grant, the Post’s 413 members first offered to buy furniture and appliances for the nine homes built on an acre of land near downtown Jonesboro. But another civic organization decided to do so, buying sofas, tables, chairs, washers, dryers and other electrical appliances.
“We didn’t want to duplicate efforts,” said Murphy, who retired as Chief Warrant Officer 3. “We knew veterans who were struggling. They were trying to get back on their feet. We thought: ‘What’s a good way to help them?’ ”
Post members chose to buy one year’s worth of cleaning supplies for each of the nine homes. That would free up veterans’ money for food and utility bills, Murphy said.
Workers completed construction of the homes near the corner of Aggie Road and Allis Street, just east of the city center in late summer 2021.
Much of the funding came from the National Housing Trust Fund scheme. Private donations were also received, and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge donated $250,000 to complete Jonesboro Veterans Village.
There are seven 550 square foot one-bedroom homes and two 950 square foot two-bedroom homes on the complex. They were placed in a horseshoe shape on the ground with sidewalks and a pavilion in the center. At the south end of the land is a community center. The whole project is surrounded by a black fence.
Veterans selected to live there receive 90 days of free rent and assistance in finding employment. It is the only such housing project in Arkansas and one of the few in the Midsouth.
Already, officials in Little Rock and Fayetteville have expressed interest in replicating the Jonesboro model and building similar complexes in their Arkansas towns.
“Housing is key for some veterans,” said Lynda Nash, director of Arkansas State University’s Beck Pride Center, a program to help veterans in northeast Arkansas. .
Nash also worked on securing financing for the housing project.
“Some [veterans] live in cars,” she said. “Others are homeless. We wanted to give them something nice.
“THE MOST DIFFICULT WAS ASKING FOR HELP”
There have been delays in getting veterans to homes, Murphy said. The Ministry of Housing often seemed to change its housing regulations and the housing application process was slow.
Then, on September 13, 2021, someone broke into several homes and stole clothing, washers and dryers, furniture, and other items. The insurance covered the losses, but it delayed the opening again.
Finally, at the end of December, the first three veterans move into houses.
“It’s amazing,” Mark Freeman, a Marine who served in Japan from 1998 to 2003, said of the homes.
Freeman lived in Bono, Arkansas, a small community near Jonesboro, until he had a falling out with his landlord. The apartment owner locked him out of his house, and Freeman ended up living in his car.
“The hardest part was asking for help,” Freeman said.
Jeremy Wells, a Navy veteran who served from 1999 to 2010, moved into the village Dec. 21. Someone had broken into his home in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, twice in early December, stealing everything, “including the trash,” he said. . Wells was then homeless and without a car – the thief also fled with his vehicle. He went to the emergency room of a Walnut Ridge hospital soon after, complaining of stomach pain.
He was then freed and started walking on the freezing December night towards Jonesboro, about 25 miles away.
“I was freezing my ass off,” Wells said. “But I had nowhere to go.”
He called an acquaintance who picked him up, then he called VFW Post 1991 in Jonesboro. Within a day, members of the Post helped place Wells in a house in the village. He placed a small Christmas tree atop his stereo for the holiday season.
“THE VFW HAS HELPED A LOT”
Jeffery Hill Sr., of Texarkana, Arkansas, was the first to move into the village. Hill is a U.S. Army veteran, serving from 1978 to 1983 with the 82nd Airborne Division.
He had lived in a hotel in southwestern Arkansas, paying $2,000 a month.
He had relatives in Jonesboro and visited them briefly before being treated at John J. Pershing VA Medical Center in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, for a knee injury. Two days after leaving the center, he was admitted to the Jonesboro Housing Village.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “I got stuck in motels. I was depressed and couldn’t cope.
There are nearly 6,000 veterans living in Craighead County, which includes Jonesboro, said Larry Pierce, a VA duty officer for the county.
Pierce, a life member of VFW Post 2242 in Paragould, Arkansas, served with the 2nd Marine Brigade in Korea in 1968 and 1969. He then served with a Marine Liaison Brigade in Cambodia in the 1970s. Former Sergeant, Pierce said he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I have what they have,” he said of the veterans he helps with disability claims, resumes, job applications and other services. He estimates that there are between 75 and 100 homeless veterans in Jonesboro.
“There is a strong need in this county”
said Pierce. “The VFW helped a lot.”
Projects including the Veterans Village helped restore the image of VFW Post 1991. Several years ago a civic organization with a club across Airport Road from the Post was the scene of a small riot. The police were called and the club was eventually closed and the organization suspended.
Although the fracas did not involve any members of VFW, the Post was included in discussions of the incident due to its closeness to the club.
“We had a reputation then as just a bar,” said Post 1991 member Ira Brown, a 22-year Navy veteran who served as chief aviation petty officer and electrician on two tours of the Vietnam. “We’re not like that at all.”
Brown, 83, says the inclusion of new Gulf War veterans has helped keep the post young.
“We have relied on Korean and Vietnamese veterans for so long,” he said. “We were getting old. The new ones arrived and we started to see changes.
FINDING THE SENSE OF PURPOSE
Mark Davis, commander of the Arkansas Department of VFW and a 1991 Post life member, said much of the Post’s work goes unnoticed. Each year, members give a $30,000 college scholarship to a high school essay writer.
They also organize a motorcycle ride to collect Christmas toys for families of veterans. Finally, at the end of December, the first and give turkeys for the holidays. The Post Auxiliary prepares and sells products each Christmas as part of a fundraiser.
“Our motto is, ‘We’re the last to let you down,'” said Davis, who served in the Navy for 14 years as a chief petty officer and then in the army for 12 as a master sergeant. .
“I don’t want to see a veteran in need,” he said. “I will do everything to get you back on your feet.”
Some veterans struggle to adjust to civilian life, which leads to problems, Murphy said.
“There is such a sense of purpose in the uniform,” he said. “You make life and death decisions when you’re 18 or 19. You come back here and there’s nothing. You lose that sense of purpose.”
More are expected to move into the village. Eventually, officials want to see the nine homes filled with veterans continuously.
After a warm reception after the Gulf War, veterans are now forgotten and left to fend for themselves, Murphy said.
“Veterans today are going through now what Vietnam veterans went through when they got home,” he said.
“When I came home from the Navy, no one was waiting for me at the pier,” Wells added. “Right here [at the village]I made myself some friends.
This article is featured in the April 2022 issue of VFW magazine and was written by Kenneth Heard. Heard is a former newspaper and television journalist based in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He is currently Director of Media Information for the Craighead County (Arkansas) District Attorney’s Office.