Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Lunch, and Soon Rides, for Needy Vets

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Lunch, and Soon Rides, for Needy Vets

Article excerpt

MARLBORO -- Military veterans from Bergen County, most of them recently homeless, settled into their seats around spotless tablecloths, unfurled neatly folded napkins on their laps and took in tributes and applause -- and large servings of chicken and fish.

Those veterans and their spouses, along with more than 100 other veterans from across the state, were thanked Sunday at a luncheon at the scenic Bella Vista Country Club in Monmouth Country that served to launch a new organization that hopes to turn gratitude into action by driving veterans to critical medical appointments for free.

"It's their day," said Thomas Michaels Jr., who co-founded Driven by Heroes, the nonprofit that plans to give rides beginning in January. "Our special way of saying thanks to them."

Among the Bergen County contingent at the club, an hour's drive from Hackensack, was Jorge Benites, 59, a Marine Corps veteran who says he has struggled with depression since the recent deaths of his mother and stepson. He couldn't continue working as a tour bus driver -- and, as a result, he could no longer afford the $1,500 monthly rent for his Hackensack apartment. The Bergen County Division of Veterans Services helped him find an apartment in Wood- Ridge for a fraction of the cost, he said.

Things are looking up. "In a few more months, I'm back to normal," he said.

Benites and his wife, Janneth, came in a chartered bus from the county complex in Hackensack, along with 20 other veterans and their families whom the Division of Veterans Services regularly helps, said A.J. Luna, the director.

The group was invited by Driven by Heroes, which hopes to serve veterans statewide. It will drive them to appointments for chemotherapy and radiation therapy, traumatic brain injury, dialysis, spinal cord injury and mental health, Michaels said. The organization will be staffed by volunteers in the beginning, but the goal is to have veterans as paid drivers providing free rides for other veterans, Michaels said.

Many of those seeking help at the Bergen County veterans agency come in for mental health and substance abuse issues, while others are searching for jobs or need help because they're on fixed incomes, Luna said. …

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