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Panhandle Warrior Partnership Expands & Moves HQ To Pensacola

Panhandle Warrior Project

The veterans’ services organization Panhandle Warrior Partnership is now headquartered in Pensacola. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Monday to celebrate the opening of their new office at 4300 Bayou Blvd. 

During a short program outside the office, Executive Director Danny Verda provided a quick snapshot of what the organization does.

“We assist veterans with health and education benefits, developing connections for employment and housing and overall community integration through a four-step process,” said Verda.  “That process is to connect, education, advocate and collaborate.”

The Panhandle Warrior Partnership, which is part of the national organization America’s Warrior Partnership, began operations in Fort Walton Beach about 18 months ago.

According to Verda, from the beginning their goal was to expand service to veterans across Northwest Florida.

“So they started it out of the Fort Walton Beach area because of Hurlburt (Field) and Eglin Air Force Base,” Verda said. “It quickly grew and it was realized that there was a greater opportunity by expanding to the entire First Congressional District and, at that point, the decision was made to move the office to Pensacola.”

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media

As for the move, being in Pensacola provides a greater access to more community leaders and Congressman Jeff Miller, who is Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee; and they’re now in the same office park as Miller at the corner of 12th Avenue & Bayou Blvd.

Another reason for the move is that the Panhandle is home to more than 180,000 veterans, which is the largest veteran population in the nation; and locally, most of those veterans live in the Escambia/Santa Rosa area.

To serve more veterans, PWP’s staff has been increased to ten. And, despite the move to Pensacola, their plan is to continue to extend their reach throughout the First Congressional District.

So far, the organization has helped more than 4,000 of the region’s more than 13,000 post-9-11 veterans.

Verda says one of the most essential services to get them registered in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) eBenefits program.

“When you have someone who rates benefits by law and that even isn’t registered in the system, it’s going to make it very difficult to find the right people to get the right services done,” Verda said. “So, we get them registered in the system.”

Case managers, or ‘veteran advocates,’ are also able to track veterans by their need, and also identify trends and shortfalls, through a data base system called “Warrior Serve.”

Additionally, says Verda, part of their work is to collaborate with community leaders to identify where there are gaps in employment.

I have employers who say they’re looking for veterans to hire and I have veterans who say I can’t find employment,” said Verda, making the point that there is a ‘disconnect’ somewhere. “So, it’s incumbent upon us to try to find what that disconnect is and try to partner up with other organizations to fix that disconnect.”

When education is what’s missing from the employment picture, the University of West Florida is ready to assist. About 25 percent of the student population at UWF is military-affiliated. Marc Churchwell is director of the UWF Military and Veterans Resource Center.

“So, they (PWP) can let them (veterans) know what they have and if they do want to pursue education,” said Marc Churchwell, Director of the UWF Military and Veterans Resource Center. “And, they’ll know how to use their education benefits, the GI Bill. And, Bingo, they’ve got us and they’ll refer them to us and we can quickly work with them and it’s a great strong partnership.

Last year, UWF received $65,000 from the Panhandle Warrior Partnership. Jim Lorraine, President and CEO of the national affiliate, America’s Warrior Partnership (AWP), says it was part of a $1 million investment made thus far, with another $1 million to go.

“The Panhandle is a great place to do this,” said Lorraine. “You have a huge population of veterans; you have a huge plethora of resources. Now it’s just a matter of connecting all the dots…taking those who have the needs and connecting them with those who have the means.”

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward also attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, noting that many people take for granted the war that previous veterans fought and can’t appreciate the different kind of war being waged today.

“They’re doing more with less.” Said Hayward, pointing out that the City employs a number of veterans. “And, us as a community, we owe them a debt of gratitude to help them get a leg up, help them work with the university and help them get a job.”

In addition to the ribbon-cutting for the new Pensacola headquarters of the Panhandle Warrior Partnership, announced a new partnership with the VA’s Veterans Economics Community Initiative (VECI). Due to this area’s veteran population, Northwest Florida becomes one of just 28 metropolitan areas in the nation to get a VECI.