Retired Col. Bob Freniere sits in the back of his van, where he lives, with all of his possessions in King of Prussia, Pa. After a 30-year military career, Freniere is struggling to live on his disability pay while trying to find a job. (Michael Bryant / The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)
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Retired Air Force Col. Robert Freniere unintentionally became the public face for homeless veterans after a Philadelphia newspaper wrote about his struggle to find work.
Freniere spent just over 30 years in the military, and after he was medically retired in 2006 at age 51 he landed a job with a defense contractor in Afghanistan earning $150,000 per year.
But he returned to the U.S. in 2012 to a weak economy, sequestration and the winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And few job opportunities.
Soon, Freniere became one of an estimated 57,000 homeless veterans in 2013, an estimate drawn from the U.S. government’s Point in Time Count, which is meant to provide a snapshot of how many veterans are homeless on a given night. The 2013 figure shows a 24 percent decline since 2010, according to the Veterans Affairs Department.
But Freniere’s situation is complex, and contributing to his homelessness are family issues, financial obligations and other unique circumstances.
The frequent separations from family during deployments, the transition from the military to civilian life and the mental and physical impacts of service can amplify the factors that lead to homelessness, said Kelly Caffarelli, president of the Home Depot Foundation, which helps veterans and their families get the housing they need.
“Historically, veterans are twice as likely to be homeless as their civilian counterparts,” Caffarelli said in a Jan. 23 interview.
The job search
One reason veterans have a hard time finding work is it is hard for them to translate the skills they used in the military to civilian employers, she said.
Count Freniere among them.
“My last job [that] I got full time was with a company up in Wisconsin in sales,” he said in a Jan. 21 interview. “That’s not what I was trained to do with my life but I thought I would give it a try. It was a company that was owned by a former military officer who I got along with fabulously, and in the end, it just wasn’t a good fit for me.”
Adding to his troubles, Freniere is estranged from his current wife, so he cannot live in the home he owns.
While he gets about $3,928 per month in disability pay for a back injury, he said he cannot afford an apartment because he still pays all the bills he had when he was pulling down six figures.
After paying for food, gas and tuition for two sons in college, the money goes fast. Although he has Tricare Prime, he also pays for a separate insurance policy.
“I’ve had friends that have let me stay at their homes,” Freniere said. “I’ve also had family that have offered but because of where they are located, it’s not advantageous for me in terms of applying for jobs.”
Help is available for veterans who need housing, said John Driscoll, president and CEO, National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
“There are organizations now that get funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs to help homeless veterans find permanent affordable housing and to move in as quickly as possible,” Driscoll said in a Jan. 23 interview. “Each VA medical center has a homeless veterans center coordinator, who can help homeless veterans link up with the different programs in their service areas designed to help veterans.”
Freniere said he has recently become aware of all the resources available to him when VA reached out to him after he was profiled by The Philadelphia Inquirer in early January.
He has also received at least 100 offers of assistance from people, and he is in the process of thanking each of them.
“I’ve had people literally offer me their homes — like they have an extra home that no one is using,” he said. “I’ve had people offer me jobs. I’ve had people offer me food — ‘Come live at our house; we’ll take care of you; we’re fellow veterans.’ ”
Right now, Freniere is going through all the offers for jobs and places to stay to find the right match. He has already set up job interviews.
“Obviously I’m a pretty smart guy; I’m not just taking the first thing that someone offers to me,” he said. “I’m getting all kinds of job [offers]; they’re not necessarily aligned with work that I do, like defense-oriented work, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t work at those companies.”
Adding it up
Since Freniere‘s story was published, several people have asked online why he isn’t getting more retirement pay.
The answer is complicated.
Freniere’s 30 years in the military was a mix of time on active duty and in the Reserve. He received an active-duty retirement, so he is compensated for the 13 years he spent on active duty in both the Army and Air Force, said Air Reserve Personnel Center spokeswoman Lt. Col. Belinda Petersen.
Because he was medically retired, his compensation is based on his 40 percent disability rating, Petersen said.
He is not eligible for Reserve retired pay when he turns 60 because federal law prohibits him from collecting both active-duty and Reserve retirement pay.
Had he opted to collect his Reserve retirement pay, Freniere would have had to wait until he turned 60 before starting to get the money, which is taxable, Petersen said.
As soon as he retired, Freniere was able to start collecting his disability retirement pay, which is tax free. By law, disability retirement pay cannot be split with former spouses when service members get divorced, said Steve Burghardt, a spokesman for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.
While Freniere is grateful for the outpouring of support since his story was first published, he is troubled by some of the comments about him that he has seen online questioning how much he gets in compensation.
“They were just people who had no idea what they were talking about,” he said. “This happened when my father was in the military. I remember when he was retired — this used to drive him and my mom crazy — that everyone thought they were millionaires because they were retired from the military. My dad still had two jobs. He had five kids.”
Freniere was particularly irked by people who accused him of “freeloading” off of taxpayers.
“I didn’t understand that,” he said. “How am I freeloading to begin with? I’m not bothering anybody. I’m not down on my life. I wake up every day optimistic that I’m going to find work. They teach us at survival school in the military the first thing you’ve got to do is keep a positive attitude.”