Community reaches out to local veterans


Vendors attend the Alachua County Transition Information and Veteran Referral Day at Kanapaha Veterans Memorial Park on Thursday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.

In a single afternoon, local veterans went searching for jobs, signed up for library cards, registered to vote, got information about enrolling at Santa Fe College and Saint Leo University and learned about what the area has to offer.

The first Alachua County Transition Veteran Information and Referral Day happened Thursday at the Kanapaha Veterans Memorial Park, targeting both new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan transitioning to civilian life for the first time as well as older veterans who are new to Alachua County.

“It's a way for the community to welcome them,” said County Commissioner Charles “Chuck” Chestnut.

The event was organized by several departments of county government.

“Jobs” was the most common answer people gave when asked what brought them to Kanapaha Park on Thursday.

A person in a blue Navy shirt went up to a table set up by the Alachua County Sheriff's Office. “So what do y'all have for veterans?” he asked. “Tell me about the Sheriff's Office.”

Sheriff's Deputy Angela McClellan was giving the attendees information about employment opportunities for former members of the military. A former member of the Army, she related to the vets. “When I first got out, it was difficult to find a job,” she recalled.

The Gainesville Police Department was also there to recruit new employees.

GPD “works with vets, paying their academy expenses,” said Louis Acevedo, GPD recruiter. The GI bill benefits can be used to cover the cost of attending the police academy, but some people max it out when they get their four-year degree, he said. “If the GI bill doesn't cover it, we can help.”

Walmart, Alachua County Human Resources, and the City of Gainesville Human Resources Office were also taking applications.

Some veterans wanted to be their own boss, opting to start a business rather than join one. Gregory Sledge, in the Army for about three years until 1987, started a moving company last September that predominately hires ex-military people.

For people like Sledge, the Gainesville chapter of SCORE, a nonprofit organization that provides free business counseling to entrepreneurs, let veterans know about the help SCORE offers to small businesses. SCORE connects owners of small businesses to a mentor, face to face or through email.

Not everybody was so eager to immediately join the civilian workforce after their military careers. Zack Rasmussen, who was in the Navy for four years, said he is ready to go back to school.

“Getting back into college is a big deal for veterans,” he said. He was at Thursday's event to get information from Santa Fe College about enrolling to study architectural landscaping.

Competing for attention with Santa Fe College, Saint Leo University had representatives there to entice veterans.

“Because we're a private school, we have more grants available,” said Kristen Copenhaver, VA certifying official for Saint Leo in Gainesville. Saint Leo doesn't charge vets out-of-state tuition and offers several benefits for housing and books, Copenhaver said.

Aside from settling the question of whether to enroll in school or get a job, veterans found several local nonprofit organizations and local government departments to help understand what kinds of services are available for them in Alachua County.

Christians Concerned for the Community offered vets help in installing wheelchair ramps, bath rails, or other equipment for the handicapped. The Alachua County Crisis Center let them know where to go and who to contact if they have an emergency involving such issues as suicidal thoughts or post-traumatic stress disorder. Getting a library card, registering to vote in the county, and requesting a Florida birth certificate were also made easy.

“It's so good to see the community support the veterans, and to be in a community where they help,” said Matt Bowman, former flight officer in the Navy. “Most veterans are not aware of the benefits and opportunities available to them.”

Vendors outnumbered attendees at Thursday's event. The list of local government agencies, businesses and nonprofits was too large to list, said Major Stroupe, veterans services director for Alachua County.

Meanwhile, veterans and their family members did not show up in the numbers the county had hoped. By noon, just more than 20 people had attended, Stroupe said.

Commissioner Chestnut has higher hopes for next year.

“I think it will do better when it becomes an annual event,” he said.

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