Homeless vets find jobs in veterans cemeteries

December 3, 2008 6:59:19 PM PST
Navy veteran David Miller, 46, watched as the remains of fellow Navy veteran Irvin Thompson were laid to rest in the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon back in November. Thompson died 67 years ago at Pearl Harbor, but his remains were not identified until two months ago.

Miller carved the inscription on Thompson's headstone, and it was an honor to do so, he said.

"I feel that who else to do the headstone of a veteran than another veteran," Miller said.

Miller works for the Veterans Employment Agency where he has at least two things in common with the other employees; he is a veteran and homeless.

The agency is the brainchild of Irvin Goodwin; he runs a homeless veterans emergency housing facility in Menlo Park. Miller and the other employees live there while they get their life back together again.

Goodwin started the employment agency to provide jobs for his homeless residents.

"Because of their homelessness and a large gap in their work history, the employer feels like 'I don't want to take a chance with this guy,'" Goodwin said.

Goodwin came up with the idea of putting vets to work, inscribing headstones for national cemeteries. So far, they have contracts in Florida, Michigan and the cemetery in Dixon.

The orders come in from the national cemetery office in Quantico, Virginia.

Penny Rowlan served in the navy; she has been treated for post traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction and has been homeless for 13 years. She takes the orders, formats the inscription and cuts the stencil.

Rowlan feels a certain intimacy with each order.

"You would think after doing so many that maybe not, but each one I really take some time to think about it," Rowlan said.

The stencil is then sent to Penny Bethel who also assists in their preperation. Bethel was a medic in Vietnam; she has been homeless for a year after being laid off from work. She too takes each inscription personally.

Navy veteran Anthony Thomas came to the facility after losing his job and his home. He is in rehab for a drinking problem.

Both Thomas and Bethel pick out the letters with great care.

"It becomes a personal contact because this is someone you didn't know in life that you may meet them later on," Thomas said.

The stencil is sent to the cemetery in Dixon where the letters will be inscribed on a headstone.

That is Miller's job.

Miller was paroled seven months ago after serving 23 years in prison. This is his first job since getting out.

"Its emotional; you look at the name, some of them come in with a lot of inscription on them, some of them just come in with a date," Millier said.

The homeless veterans are not only learning a trade; the job gives them something more.

"You know, self respect, self esteem; all the things I had prior which I totally lost in my addiction and stuff," Rowlan said.

The veterans are proud of what they are doing. They are also grateful to their fallen comrades who in death have come to their aid. Inscribing headstones has given the veterans a second chance in life.

"Someday someone will do mine and say thank you to me like I do these people every day," Behtel said.


Load Comments