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Forgotten Heroes: Honoring Our Nations Homeless Veterans
in past years, official Washington used Veterans Day to honor
Americas men and women in uniform, present and past. As is customary,
President Clinton laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown located
in Arlington National Cemetery and later spoke to an audience
of veterans and dignitaries at the cemeterys amphitheater.
every military monument in the Capital City hosted some type of
memorial service. Of special note was the event at the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial at which this years Miss America, Kentuckian
Heather Renee French, gave an impassioned appeal for recognition
of veterans from that conflict, especially the homeless, a cause
to which she has dedicated her reign.
teary impromptu remarks before the speech, Miss French said that
her father, a disabled Vietnam Vet, was "her hero."
She recounted how, as a young girl, she accompanied him on his
numerous visits to Veterans Hospitals for rehabilitation from
his wartime wounds. On those visits, she met many injured men
and women from that conflict, leaving an indelible impression
on her consciousness today. She also told the audience that on
one of her first public appearances as Miss America, a badly injured
Vietnam veteran in a wheel chair entrusted her with his purple
heart with two silver stars to remind her of the respect in which
she was held by Veterans who knew of her dedication to their cause.
"That medal is with me everywhere I go," she told the
text of her remarks follow.
Statement of Heather French, Miss America 2000
November 11, 1999
Every day in cities all across
our nation, we encounter homeless people for whom we feel a fleeting
sense of pity and sometimes even shame. Yet in an instant, the
feeling passes and our lives resume their hurried march into the
In that instant we have missed
a great opportunity - not only to help a homeless person with
a kind word, a smile or acknowledgment of their presence in our
path, but in some cases to honor an individual who has served
our country as a member of the armed services. Indeed, one in
every three homeless persons we encounter on our cities' streets
is an American veteran.
But who are these men and women
who served our nation during its greatest times of need and now
live without shelter or food or medical care? They are some 250,000
Americans who live in a perpetual state of homelessness, with
nearly twice that number passing in and out of homelessness in
any given year. They are the once young men and women, now aging,
who we sent abroad to defend our country - but cast aside upon
their return. They are our country's forgotten heroes.
Although today I serve as Miss
America 2000, a national role model and advocate, I am first and
foremost the daughter of a disabled Vietnam veteran whose struggles
have changed my life forever. Through the eyes of my father, I
have seen challenges that face our nation's homeless veterans
every day: the pain of psychological trauma, especially Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorder, resulting from the perils of war; the struggle
to overcome drug and alcohol addictions; the heartache of rejection
- from potential employers, landlords, neighbors and sometimes
While there are programs to
help these homeless heroes - wonderful programs coordinated by
the Department of Veterans Affairs, our nation's veterans'service
organizations and community-based groups - it's not enough. These
programs lack the funding necessary to solve the problem; year
after year they are authorized, but they are never fully funded.
They lack the volunteers to ensure they exist on the community
level. And they lack the widespread awareness that would guarantee
that every homeless veteran understands he or she is eligible
for help and need not live in alienation.
As the first Miss America to
wear the crown in the new millennium, I will do so as a bold spokesperson
and advocate for our nation's homeless veterans. I will dedicate
my year of service to creating unprecedented awareness surrounding
this issue. I will not rest until I have spoken to as many citizens
as I possibly can, day and night, about the needs of these heroes.
And I will ask the news media to join me in a partnership that
informs and educates young and old alike.
I will advocate for the adequate
funding of programs at both the state and Federal levels. I will
walk the halls of our nation's Capitol and its state assemblies,
imploring our elected officials to eliminate this problem forever
by placing the necessary dollars in the hands of experts who can
identify, reach out to and help our nation's homeless veterans.
I will encourage our nation's corporate leaders to provide well-paying
jobs that honor the abilities of our nation=s veterans. And I
will participate in fund-raising activities that include homeless
veterans as their beneficiaries.
I will stir the hearts of our
nation=s strong and vital corps of volunteers with stories of
struggle and hope, encouraging them to give an hour...or a day...or
more of their time to helping our forgotten heroes. Like me, I
will ask them to support community-based Stand Down programs which
will help veterans reconnect with the services they need to overcome
their personal battles.
I will educate our nation's
youth and those who influence them - parents, teachers, clergy
and others - about the heroism of our nation's military, both
past and present, hopefully inspiring a new patriotism and spirit
of service among the young. At the same time, I will alert them
to the needs of homeless veterans, explaining why they should
care and become involved.
But most importantly, I will
reach out and touch the hands and hearts of homeless veterans
throughout this nation. I will see in their faces the face of
my own father. I will love, honor and respect them, placing their
needs before my own, using my voice where theirs cannot be heard.
And I will shine the Miss America spotlight on them and their
plight, not resting until the job is done.