'Vet hunters' seek out and help former military members having a tough time

By IMANI TATE | Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Ontario, Calif. | Published: November 2, 2012

ONTARIO, Calif. — America is the home of the free because of the brave.

Therefore, "homeless" and "veteran" are words that should never be paired, charge Vet Hunter Project co-founder Joe Leal of Upland, Vietnam veteran John Figueroa of La Verne and project executive director Mellanie Villarreal of Whittier.

"It's an insult to their service, all veterans and all the fallen soldiers for any veteran to be living on the street, without services or shelter, considering or committing suicide," Leal fervently asserted. "These homeless veterans are the sons and daughters of America."

Using their own money, time and resources, hundreds of vet hunters have formed "search and rescue" missions, crisscrossing the nation and frequenting skid rows, concrete villages and remote corners to find homeless and at-risk military veterans.

These are missions of faith, but does not involve religion. The "hunters" find permanent housing for veterans, connect them with vitally needed services and, whenever possible, reunite them with worried families.

To date, the West Coast team of 40 volunteers headed by Leal and project co-founder Alfred Lugo of Whittier have rescued nearly 1,300 homeless veterans. Active-duty Army Master Sgt. Steve Kreider leads the East Coast hunters who've found thousands more.

"We may have gray hair when we're done, but we can't rest until we're done," Leal said.

Leal, 35, has 17 years of service to the Army on active duty from 1995 to

2005 before he went into the reserve. He did several tours in Iraq.

Grieving heavily about several close friends who were killed in action and desperately trying to determine his own future course, he was "rescued" from his misery in 2008 when Army officials asked him to become a civilian community liaison.

He was to organize a sendoff for 137th Quartermaster Company assigned to South El Monte Army Reserve Center before the soldiers were deployed to Iraq and a welcome-home party of appreciation for their return.

He contacted Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts for help. This ultimately led him to VFW Post 2018 in Pomona where Figueroa was the commander and American Legion Borinquen Post 508 in Covina where Figueroa was post captain.

Figueroa said he immediately bonded with Leal, forging a friendship formed from serving those who served the nation.

Figueroa proudly declared he was, and is, a Marine. He was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City from infancy. Barber Ruperto Figueroa and homemaker Juana Figueroa spoon-fed their six children with large doses of familial love and patriotic pride.

John's older brother, Vietnam veteran Rogelio, served 27 years in the Air Force, retiring as a chief master sergeant. John served in the Marines from 1966 to 1969 and spent 1967 and 1968 in Vietnam.

Figueroa said sad memories of the disdain and abuse Vietnam veterans suffered made him want to do something positive for active-duty, reserve and veteran military men and women.

When the entire company of 137th Quartermaster soldiers came to a VFW Post 2018 meeting, they were welcomed with widespread arms.

"I still get chills at the response," Leal said. "People there were so proud and supportive."

Fast forward a year to January 2009. The 137th soldiers are coming home. Leal and Figueroa figured they and other military personnel deserved something special.

"We needed a large arena, so I went to the Rose Bowl. The fee was $36,000. That was hefty and we weren't sure how we'd find it. We heard more No's and got more doors closed in our face trying to raise that money," Leal said, shaking his head.

The soldiers saved the day, passing helmets while deployed and literally raising the $36,000 for their own welcome-home party. The party became an extravaganza as comedians, War, Tierra, master Latin jazz and salsa percussionist Johnny Polanco (a Vietnam veteran and former Marine), the Los Angeles Police Department Bagpipers and others stepped up to entertain and welcome the 137th as well as World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans.

Contact with so many veterans revealed the pervasive problem of homelessness and hopelessness among veterans.

Leal is particularly sensitive about homelessness because he had been homeless as a child and lived in shelters in Pomona and Los Angeles. He co-founded the Vet Hunters Project in December 2010. The project had no money or resources, but it did have the passion of its veteran-citizen hunters.

"We realized thousands of soldiers fail to reintegrate into society, kill themselves, are unemployed or homeless. It's even more serious for female veterans," Leal lamented.

No military man or woman should be in shelters, on the streets or in despair, Figueroa said.

Villarreal had embarked on a personal journey to better the world just before she met Leal in April 2011 when he and 20 vet hunters decided to bicycle from Los Angeles to St. Louis to raise awareness and funds. She felt this jived with her wish to make a difference.

Villarreal joined the production team and used her technical skills to chronicle the ride through California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas and Missouri and the return through Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Others joined the volunteers and vowed to "never leave any fallen soldier behind," she said about the life-changing experience.

"And The Home of the Brave," a Hope Boat Productions documentary about the cross-country trek, will be screened at the Los Angeles Film School Nov. 8, 9 and 10.

The homeless situation is worse for reserve soldiers because, unlike active-duty ones who can live in barracks, reservists do not live on military bases and are on a lower pay scale, Leal noted. When they serve only one weekend a month, they only get paid for that weekend although they must always be "mission ready."

The California hunters acted quickly recently to help a homeless, 20-year-old female reservist living beneath a bridge.

"Her situation was aggravated by the fact she came from a dysfunctional family and had no family support, Villarreal fretted. A vet hunter found her and called us to help.

The hunters do not send homeless vets to shelters or skid rows. They secure permanent housing and resolution.

There are rays of hope.

They found a veteran in Las Vegas who'd been robbed, assaulted, all identification and money stolen, severely injured in a hit-and-run accident and homeless for 10 years. They reunited him with the wife and son who'd never stopped looking for or loving him.

West Coast hunters used their national network and police contacts to prevent a post-traumatic-stressed suicidal veteran in Biloxi, Miss. from killing himself.

There are countless success stories, but the hunters also live with the tragic ones when they can't stop a suicide, prevent a death from exposure, malnutrition and neglect or connect a veteran with a long-gone family.

But they won't stop.

"We're righting a wrong," Leal swore. "These veterans shouldn't be dying or living on the streets they fought to protect."

Villarreal said, "We find out where they are, what they need and where the breakdown is and we fix it."


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