About one in five homeless Central Floridians once wore our country's colors.
Vets such as Loretta White. She's among the 62,000 or so vets who pray the Obama administration's bid to end homelessness by 2015 is a more unequivocal win than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In the meantime, the former Army sergeant has launched her own offensive. With her production, "Tent to Tent," White hopes to showcase the march from soldier to homeless veteran. Set against an original score, the stage play stitches together scenes in a soldier's career — such as enlistment, taking the oath and discharge — with monologues from actual veterans telling their stories. Including White's.
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People, she says, "fail to realize that there's a reason veterans become homeless. It's not like we jump right out of the military and say, 'We want to live in the woods.'"
For White, 51, the Army seemed the perfect way for the Raleigh, N.C., native to kill two birds — her need for independence and thirst for travel — with one solemn oath.
White earned the Army Commendation Medal during her 10-year hitch. Along the way, she met and married a soldier. She never saw combat on the front line. But White says she endured nearly a decade of domestic warfare.
"You're trying to be a soldier 24-7 but also being abused at the same time," she says, blinking back tears.
White developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Not that she had a clue when she was discharged.
"When I got out in 1989, they didn't tell you anything about PTSD or about resources," she says. "I didn't think I had a problem. He was the one abusing me, so I thought he had the problem."
How wrong she was.
After her discharge, White went back to Raleigh but couldn't hold a job. Her family was confounded. Feeling abandoned, White moved to Virginia in 1993. After that, she bounced with her four kids among battered women's shelters, public housing and an abandoned Altamonte Springs home before she landed in a transitional home for veterans in Cocoa.
There, after hearing stories from the nearly 80 veterans in residence with themes similar to hers, White mentally pitched "Tent to Tent."
Though her PTSD stems from the bedroom, not the battlefield, the effects are identical.
"Families do not understand why soldiers do not come back like they left," she says. "We are really trying but can't understand why we can't function like we used to."
And like her, many of the veterans were battling disputed or backlogged disability claims.
Their similar roads often lead to homelessness and despair.
"Three of them actually told me, 'You saved my life because I was considering suicide. Because you were willing to open your door and talk me through it, I didn't take my life.' And all I could do was cry because I had never thought about it like that. That, sometimes, all it takes is for someone to listen to us."
And so White — currently a multimedia-production student at Seminole State College through the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program — was driven to give voice to homeless vets — a desire bolstered by VA therapy that's helped her finally manage her PTSD.
Her goal is to raise funds to stage "Tent to Tent" at Sanford's Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center. For now, she's asking churches to host smaller dry runs.
I hope she succeeds with her novel approach to highlighting an issue of special relevance to Florida — one of four states where half of all the nation's homeless vets live.
For now, White, her kids and a grandchild live in her eldest daughter's tumbledown two-bedroom Winter Springs flat.
It's not perfect. But it's not the streets.
"They say they want to end homelessness — which is a good thing — but if you don't know the cause, how are you going to fix it?" White says. "It's not just homelessness."
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