As Fort Monmouth begins its rebirth and enters its redevelopment phase, there is good news for veterans in need. Soldier On, a non-profit organization that works in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies to provide veterans shelter and support, has support of its own among staff of the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority, (FMERA).
The wide-ranging Soldier On, already successful in Massachusetts and Virginia, was brought to FMERA by Monmouth County Freeholder Lillian Burry, FMERA’s Veteran’s Sub-Committee Chairperson and a voting member of the authority as the representative of the Freeholders. A long-time advocate for veterans’ issues, who has been fighting to keep the Veteran’s Administration Hospital open at the fort, Mrs. Burry researched the program, contacted its President and CEO, Jack Downing, and arranged a meeting between herself, Mr. Downing and FMERA members in October. In November, those who attended the presentation called Soldier On, “awe-inspiring” and, “a tremendously exciting opportunity.” The program must go through the established bid process, but FMERA staff recommended taking the next step to make it a reality at Fort Monmouth.
“The FMERA staff is 100% committed to this,” said Mr. Bruce Steadman, FMERA Executive Director, in expressing his endorsement of the program. “At Mr. Downing’s presentation, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. We want to explore the success he has had with Soldier On. I can’t think of a more important thing to have at Fort Monmouth.” Soldier On has been assisting veterans since 1994. In addition to providing equity-based permanent housing, the program is focused on helping veterans with such things as food, health care, mental health counseling, job assessment, training and placement assistance, as well as treatment and recovery for addiction.
“Soldier On is tailor-made for Fort Monmouth, where there are a large number of veterans who could take advantage of and would benefit from such a program,” Freeholder Burry said. “It is a perfect fit and the facilities are already there and available. Veterans are three times more likely to experience homelessness than the rest of society. There are 275,000 homeless veterans in our country today. Their fight doesn’t end when they get home.” A short, informative and moving film on the program was shown during the November 10 FMERA meeting at the Eatontown municipal building.
Mrs. Burry said that the program’s focus is on single veterans. Soldier On has received 75% federal funding at its other locations. Mr. Downing recently toured Fort Monmouth with FMERA members, identifying existing buildings where the program might be housed, as well as which facilities for it could undergo rehabilitation, said Freeholder Lillian Burry, who is also a member of FMERA’s Real Estate Sub-Committee. The next step, she said, is for FMERA members to make a site visit to the program’s Pittsfield, Massachusetts location.
Freeholder Burry’s aim is to continue to serve the thousands of veterans already associated with the fort, as well as dedicate a portion of the site to the needs of younger and returning veterans. She believes that together with the proposed expanded veteran’s clinic and the Vet2Vet intervention program she is also working to bring to the fort, Soldier On will create a state-of-the-art full service veterans hub at Fort Monmouth; continuing it’s role as a centralized location where all veterans can turn for assistance and support. Mr. Downing has agreed to direct and help set up the program, working closely with the FMERA staff.
“We assist veterans with both picking up the pieces of their lives and filling in the gaps that public agencies do not address,” Mr. Downing said. “At our core, Soldier On is about integrity: The integrity of veteran residents, the integrity of staff, and the integrity of our commitment to work tirelessly to improve the lives of veterans in the community at large.”
The program currently operates a 165-bed shelter in two buildings leased from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, Massachusetts, and the Berkshire Veterans Residence, a transitional living facility. These facilities are managed by formerly homeless veterans; an approach that ensures that those served are empowered and take a role in creating and maintaining their own living environment. The organization’s website is www.wesoldieron.org.
“Soldier On’s premise is that ownership is most important,” Freeholder Burry said. “Mr. Downing has such a grasp of it all. He really understands. Fellow veterans manage and serve their peers and there will be a property manager on site.”
Freeholder Burry has been involved in working on the future of Fort Monmouth for over six years; first as a member of the of the original Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Planning Authority, (FMERPA) and now on FMERA. She was appointed to both bodies by two sitting governors and unanimously approved by her fellow freeholders, who acknowledged that with her background, knowledge and passion for veteran’s issues, she is the best person for the job.
After 94 years of service, Fort Monmouth officially closed on September 15 with an inactivation and color casing ceremony. In 2005, Fort Monmouth was selected for closure by the Base Realignment and Closure, (BRAC), Commission and moved its operations to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The BRAC decision called for the transfer of 4,950 civilian and 450 military positions.
Signed into law by Governor Chris Christie on August 17, 2010, FMERA was created to provide investment, continuity and economic growth to the communities impacted by the federal government’s decision to close Fort Monmouth. The FMERA replaces the previous Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Planning Authority and advances that entity’s Reuse and Redevelopment Plan for economic development, growth and planning, with a focus on technology-based industries for the 1,126-acre fort property, which straddles Eatontown, Oceanport and Tinton Falls.
At its height, Fort Monmouth employed 15,000 people, 5,000 of those civilians. It’s estimated that the fort supported another 22,000 jobs and added $3.2 billion into the state’s annual economy. It is the mission of FMERA to attract a mix of industry, business, recreation and residential stakeholders to create a new future for the former base.