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War Memorial feeds need in homeless veterans program

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 12, 2015

 Loria and Banquet Chef Fabricia Santos pack up lunches to bring to veterans at Piquette Square in Detroit.

Loria and Banquet Chef Fabricia Santos pack up lunches to bring to veterans at Piquette Square in Detroit.

Photo by Deb Jacques

GROSSE POINTE FARMS/DETROIT — Lunch is such a seemingly simple thing, something many don’t give much thought to until noon rolls around and they consider where they can grab a quick bite before heading back to work.


But for someone who’s homeless, lunch can be an unfilled need. And when those who are homeless are also veterans, it adds another layer of tragedy to this national crisis.


When officials at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial found out about a program in Detroit to help veterans adjust to life outside the military, they wanted to lend a hand. And when they learned that the veterans could use a hand with lunch, Executive Chef Angelo Loria and Banquet Chef Fabricia Santos, both of Shelby Township, eagerly grabbed their kitchen tools, donned their aprons and began putting together a series of fabulous, varied and wholesome meals.


For three weeks — from Jan. 26-Feb. 13 — Loria and his kitchen staff prepared and delivered lunches to homeless veterans who were taking part in the Reboot Workshop at Piquette Square in Detroit.


Readying a meal of short ribs, mashed potatoes, roasted carrots, and garden salad in the War Memorial kitchen one morning in February, Loria positively beamed as he described how he felt taking part in this effort and seeing the positive impact it was making.


“We don’t want (the veterans) to feel forgotten for all of the service they’ve done for us,” he said. “I think that’s one of the issues: They come back from overseas and feel like they’re forgotten, and they give up. This is a great program to show that they’re not forgotten.”


Santos’ late father was a Marine, and Loria said his father was a medic assistant who served in the military in Italy during peacetime, so this hit home for both of them.


“It’s just amazing,” Santos said. “You can see how appreciative (the veterans) are. I love what I do. My payoff is when you cook something for somebody and they love it.”


Following a massive snowstorm Feb. 1 that shut down much of metro Detroit on Feb. 2, Loria called his kitchen staff to tell them to stay home that day. He, however, still made the long trek from his northern Macomb County home to the War Memorial to put together lunch and drive it to Piquette Square, despite being, as he said with a laugh, “in snow up to my shins.”


“I feel really great about what we’re doing,” Loria continued. “It was important for us to make sure we were there. Walking in snow is nothing like what (the veterans) had to do (while serving their country).”


War Memorial Veterans Committee Chair Ed Lazar found out about this project in one of his other community roles, as chair for the Michigan Region 10 Veterans Community Action Team, which he said in an email interview is “a consortium of over 200 veteran service organizations.” He felt this was a worthwhile endeavor that the War Memorial could support in a unique way.


“At the War Memorial, we want to be leaders of thought as well as being of practical service to veterans,” Lazar said. “Lunch was the only program expense not covered by the state, so filling in the gap with great food seemed the most practical thing we could do to assist these homeless vets while they try to make a new start.”


Loria came up with a new menu each day, ranging from chicken piccata to pasta to bratwursts, hot dogs and potato salad.


War Memorial Media and Communications Director Ann Marie Aliotta said this project is “a great metaphor” for their mission, with the nonprofit “literally feeding and nourishing” veterans.


Veterans in the program, who also live at Piquette Square, range in age and military experience, but they have similar stories.


Michael J. Parker, 62, of Detroit, said he served in the U.S. Marine Corps 35 years ago, spending four years as an ammunition tech and MP. He said he held jobs after he got out of the military — including more than 13 years as a custodian for Detroit Public Schools, from which he retired — but after he lost his most recent job, he ended up losing his home and found himself living on the streets.


“It’s hard to get a job,” Parker said.


Reboot has given him a new outlook on life and a new perspective on the civilian world.


“This type of class really reinforces how you think,” he said. “It gives you a positive attitude. You’re not too old. You still have something to offer.”


Bennie Stille, 43, of Detroit, was a reconnaissance photographer for the U.S. Navy for 15 months, for which he traveled the world. The former Oak Park resident, whose mother lives in Southfield, said a spinal cord injury led to him becoming homeless. A late bloomer who only learned he was a math whiz thanks to a dedicated ninth-grade teacher, he’s now studying industrial electronics technology.


“It’s always a challenge when you get out of the military because of the narrow-mindedness of people who claim to be leaders in the community,” Stille said.


Marcus Cobb, 61, of Detroit, was a U.S. Army sergeant who was drafted and “got hurt” serving during the Vietnam War — something he said he finds difficult to talk about.


“After I got out, it was hard to adjust (to civilian life), because you were never really deprogrammed,” he said. “When you come back here, your mind is still there.”


Cobb said he struggled in civilian life because after being in the military, he needed to be given orders about what to do, “or else I shut down.”


A recovering alcoholic, he said this program has inspired him, and he now hopes to aid fellow veterans.


“I’m just a veteran that wants other veterans to get the services they need,” Cobb said. “If they had had this program when I was getting out of the service, I probably would have been a different person.”


Jeffrey Letman, 57, of Detroit, was an air traffic controller for the U.S. Air Force from 1974-78. Losing his mother in 1974 led to a long bout with depression, and it’s been a recurring emotional struggle ever since, especially around the holidays.


“It was very devastating,” he said. “My mother was the center of my universe. I carried that grief with me into the military. I was never the same. … When (I) look at me, it’s like I’m looking at a mirror with a crack in it — everything’s kind of distorted.”


After losing a security job and becoming homeless, Letman said he realized he needed to reinvent himself. Reboot has given him the encouragement and skills to realize he’d like to work with children. He also has an interest in computers and law enforcement, and is only four classes away from earning his associate degree in a computer-related field with a criminal justice component.


War Memorial officials saw the benefits of Reboot and were excited to contribute to it.


“The commitment to helping vets transition from military to civilian life is a huge job with as many barriers as opportunities,” Lazar said. “Our mission, as we clarify it, will be to help as best we can with that transition. Over one million vets will transition out of the military over the next five years, and many will come home to Michigan and specifically our community. We must be ready for them.”


Reboot Master Facilitator Charles Macias is a former U.S. Marine who served during the Vietnam War era and now has devoted his life to helping fellow veterans. He proudly says Reboot has a great success rate, with 97 percent of its graduates finding employment or returning to school for a formal education. The program works, he said, because it addresses all aspects of veterans’ lives, and students work with facilitators who understand them because they’ve served in the military.


“What we’re trying to do is assist our military personnel with finding their next step,” Macias said. “It’s not just about getting a job.”


Reboot started in California in 2010 and has already seen almost 1,200 people graduate from the program, Macias said. Michigan was next, followed by Seattle, and there are plans to start a Reboot program in Texas, he said.


The Reboot workshops are designed to help veterans transition from military to civilian life, taking into account the differences in social interaction, the workplace and more. The classes also help members of the military build on their existing skills and training, prepare them for job searches and careers, and address other issues — including the emotional and psychological scars left from combat.


The workshops are one of the programs organized by National Veterans Transition Services Inc., a San Diego-based nonprofit organization. A Reboot Workshop for female veterans was slated to run from March 16-April 3 in southeast Michigan, although a venue hadn’t been announced at press time. For more information on Reboot or to enroll in a workshop, call (800) MICH-VET or visit www.nvtsi.org.