The grizzled Marine sergeant major with a chest full of medals and arms covered with stripes seemed more at home with the small group of residents at Five Star Veterans Center after the dignitaries left.
The senior enlisted adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was much more at ease with “common” veterans than his long title would seem to suggest.
Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia came to the Jacksonville, Fla., center Thursday on a goodwill visit after hearing of the center’s work, but he also had a message for the young veterans.
“We have a dual obligation in the service,” he said. “We have this important responsibility on the front end to America’s sons and daughters to train them and educate them so you’re ready to do the nation’s bidding, whether it’s combat or whatever.
“But we also have a moral obligation on the back end to reintegrate you back into society, and that’s the piece we don’t do so well with.”
Battaglia listened intently as the residents shared their struggles with the transition from military to civilian life from job training to problems in the work place. He looked the men in the eye and promised them to take their concerns back to Washington with him.
The visit marked a level of recognition the center has been striving for since new management took over, led by Col. Len Loving, after the Allied Veterans of the World scandal.
A representative from the city of Jacksonville’s Military Affairs and Veterans Department was on hand, as well as City Council President Bill Gulliford.
Gulliford read a resolution that will be brought before the City Council at its next meeting honoring the center for the work it performs in the community.
“I wish we could give you a check for a million bucks to go along with it because of your work, but it’s pretty tough in the city business these days,” Gulliford said. “But I can assure you that I, as a councilman, am committed to this work and will do whatever I can to assist you all.”
The center currently is being kept afloat by local veterans organizations, private donations and help from the business community. Bank of America had employee volunteers doing yard work outside as Gulliford spoke.
A $100,000 grant from Wayne and Delores Weaver in December also helped keep the doors open.
“We’re still limping along financially,” Loving said.
Despite the limitations, the center is succeeding in its mission to house and reintegrate homeless veterans back into the community. Forty-seven veterans have gone through the center and all but one are now independent and employed.
But Loving said the high-profile visit said more about the city as a whole.
“As far as the visit today, it’s really more of a recognition of what is happening in the city of Jacksonville in terms of trying to support the veterans issues,” he said. “That’s the reason the city brought [Battaglia] here so he could see and be shown some of the variety of programs that are available in the Jacksonville area.”