People who spend three decades in the U.S. military before retiring from the Pentagon at the rank of colonel are not supposed to end up living in a van and unable to find even a menial job to provide the kind of basic income that might save them from from homelessness. Yet that’s where retired Air Force Col. Robert Freniere finds himself in now, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Julie Zauzmer.
Freniere enlisted in the Army just after the Vietnam War ended, transferring to the Air Force shortly thereafter. A quarter-century and four combat zones of service later, he’d risen far enough through the ranks to be pulled into the Pentagon. In 2002, he began to serve as an assistant to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was already one of the top officials in the U.S. armed forces and who would go on to be the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan before resigning after making unprofessional remarks about President Obama to reporters.
After a few years working for McChrystal, Freniere retired in 2006. Finding work was hard. Debts amassed during his career — some personal, others relating to his two children in college — meant that his $40,000 annual pension from the Air Force didn’t make ends meet.
“His struggle to find a job after retiring from the Air Force collided with the end of his marriage nearly two years ago,” Zauzmer reports, and “he took up a nomadic existence.” Freniere says that dyslexia and attention deficit disorder make his six hours of daily job searching on public library computers both painstaking and slow. He hasn’t even been able to find janitorial work.
His story is very far from unique. There are tens of thousands of U.S. military veterans who are homeless. By the latest count, there were 57,849 homeless veterans in 2013, a staggering total that is nonetheless part of a positive, downward trend in total homelessness among veterans. (The nearly 58,000 veterans sleeping on the streets last year represents a 24 percent decrease compared to 2009.) The Obama administration has pledged to end homelessness among veterans by 2015 — something Phoenix, Arizona has just achieved a year ahead of schedule — and committed funds to back that promise. The Department of Veterans Affairs said in November that it will spend another $14 million to address homelessness among former servicemen and women, bringing the total spending on that problem up to nearly $22 million. Sadly, homelessness is just one of the many major economic difficulties that face veterans as they exit the services and return to civilian life.
Reducing chronic homelessness among veterans by a quarter in four years is no small thing, but in order to hit Obama’s 2015 goal for eradicating the problem, “the pace will have to pick up substantially in the next 24 months,” as Scott Keyes has noted. Few of those 58,000 stories will be told in a major newspaper, and even that publicity offers no guarantee that Freniere will be able to unpack his van anytime soon.