The Veterans Outreach Center of Rochester hosted its 7th annual Stars and Stripes Celebration at the Convention Center Thursday. Veterans shared personal success stories and spread awareness on the services available to veterans in our community.
"My life got pretty bad. I had trouble adjusting to society. I had no place to live,” said Nick Stefanovic.
That was the outlook of a 24-year-old veteran returning home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. To him, life after service was looking pretty bleak.
"I had accepted the fact that I wasn't going to have much more than that for the rest of my life."
That was until Stefanovic starting receiving free services from the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester.
"Housing, my disability through the VA and counseling. Because of the symptoms of what I was dealing with, I was not employable; even if I could look for a job I wouldn't have been employable but through the services I received I have job offers all the time."
At the annual "Stars and Stripes Celebration" Thursday, the center honored local heroes and raised money to continue its efforts.
"Our veterans are coming home, they're in need of work, currently 18- to 24-year-olds are at a rate of being 19% unemployed. They have great skills and much to offer to our employers in the community,” said Gary Yaple, Veterans Outreach Center.
One Vietnam vet thought back to when he came home in 1967.
"I was like people held us responsible for the war. I dropped out of society, I let my hair grow long, had a long beard, I was ashamed to say I was a Vietnam vet. We didn't have any services, the VA was awful,” said Ken Moore, Veteran Outreach Coordinator.
Nick says his life has greatly improved, but for other veterans, like the fifteen on the waiting list for Rochester's Richard's house, homelessness is a reality.
"My life is very different now. I support myself, I live on my own, I'm able to have relationships and do everything normal citizens can do now,” Stefanovic said.
Looking at the empty rows of seats symbolizing those we have lost, it's clear freedom comes at a price. And vets say payback can be as simple as a "thank you."
"I will and I know my wife will walk across the airport just to shake their hands and say thank you, because that's really all that matters," said Moore.
"That type of violence and horror of combat doesn't have to be a reality for the majority of the people in the country and that's why we do it, said Stefanovic.