Homeless Vet Defying Odds on Veterans Day
(KATV) Little Rock - Veterans day events kicked off Sunday and the Federal observance continues Monday. The Obama administration has set a goal to end homelessness among military veterans by 2015. Veterans affairs officials estimate the number of homeless vets has dropped to about 60,000.
When Gary Wilbourn was growing up, military service was a proud tradition, so when he turned 18, he enlisted. But even after serving his country, he is still fighting obstacles in life and has words of encouragement.
Gary Wilbourn packs his backpack with important documents. "Let me make sure it is zipped."
Fifty-three year old Gary Wilbourn is a veteran.
Talking about his backpack he laughs, "Toting that double backpack in the military was enough."
Gary is homeless and has called St. Francis House "home" for a week.
He is learning a new world, in the dark.
Gary was in the military in the 70's and 80's and lived in Korea. He worked as a hawk missile crewman and sustained minor injuries.
After returning to civilian life, he had an aneurysm while at work and then, "In 2009, I lost most the vision in my right eye. I did fine because I had most the vision in this eye," Gary points to his left eye.
This year, Gary couldn't work and lost his home. He explains, "I wasn't a bad drug addict or anything like that. I was just a regular homeless guy. As a matter of fact there were quite a few homeless veterans out there with me."
Gary would pass the time by sitting in Little Rock parks. On one September day this year, his vision got bright and quickly turned black. Test results showed his eyes had a stroke and surgery can't repair his vision.
He bows his head, "Been seeing for 53 years and all the sudden you can't. You couldn't imagine that, nobody can imagine it."
Gary says never give up. "My mom, she raised us well and taught us to be strong. You see I have never given up. The key is to never give, keep going and I got a lot of that from the military too. In the army, you go go go go."
And through it all, today, is a good day. Gary lights up, "It makes me smile to hear people say Happy Veterans day."
Gary is thankful to the Canvas Community and St. Francis House. His kids are in high school and college and stay in touch. His goal is to be independent, get a home and a job. Right now, he is focused on finding someone to train him on how to get around.
St. Francis House primarily works with homeless veterans. They're currently housing 50 men and women.
Gary concludes, "It's the hand that was dealt to me and so I have to play it."