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The Forgotten Heroes: Honoring Our Nations Homeless Veterans

As 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.

Virtually 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.

In 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 hushed audience.

A text of her remarks follow.

Platform 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 next millennium.

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 even friends.

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.

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