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DeSantis: More Vets Programs for Florida

Jennie McKeon

Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the University of West Florida recently, providing an update on a year-old veterans program, and announcing a second.

Florida is home to about 1.5 million veterans — third most among states — and Gov. Ron DeSantis believes it will eventually pass California for second place behind Texas. Speaking at UWF last week, DeSantis spoke on the “Forward March” program, which has expanded services for veterans statewide.

“We wanted to unite state agencies, community organizations, and private partners so we can harness our collective resources to better meet our veterans’ needs,” said the governor.

The initiative looks to combine the efforts of numerous non-government groups across Florida that serve veterans, under the umbrella of the state Department of Veterans Affairs director Danny Burgess, who gives credit to DeSantis, a Navy veteran.

“It’s because we have the support and top cover of our governor and our leadership, to get out of our foxholes and to do big things as an agency,” said Burgess. “[I’m] just so excited to see what we’ve accomplished in just one year, and can’t wait to see what we can accomplish in the years to come.”

Hot off the press is the assessment phase of Forward March, which can be viewed at www.floridavets.org. One of the biggest issues these days, said Burgess, is connecting veterans to the myriad resources available to them.

“We as an agency are trying to ensure that all these great programs that our government, our team and all the leaders across the state are creating and fostering – that we get it in the hands of those we are trying to serve,” Burgess said.

Sometimes vets don’t know where to turn, but Gov. DeSantis assures them the resources are out there, and can be found through Forward March. After a roundtable discussion at UWF, he said one goal is to plug the gap for active-duty members who may need legal services.

“Danny [Burgess] and I launched the Governor’s Initiative on lawyers assisting warriors – ‘GI Law’ – [to] provide people pro bono,” said DeSantis. “It’s hard enough if you’re going to deploy for six months; but if you have some legal issue hanging over your head, it becomes very difficult to focus on the task at hand.”

Another challenge for those separating from the armed forces is housing — especially among the post-9/11 vets.

“They’re oftentimes looking for that first place to land after bouncing around from location to location,” Burgess said. “They’re now just starting their family; they’re just now starting their career after service. Florida is an incredible place to set up shop; we want them here.”

While at UWF, Gov. DeSantis announced the latest veterans’ initiative, “Salute Our Soldiers Military Housing Loan Program” for veterans and active-duty personnel. Administered by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, it provides $8 million for low-interest loans among other perks.

“There will be down payment and closing-cost assistance options that will be forgiven in five years,” said the governor. “So these funds will assist over 1,000 veterans and active-duty members by making the home-buying process easier and more affordable.”

Suicide among veterans has been a longtime, growing problem. As a preventative measure, Florida has joined The Governors’ Challenge – a coordinated effort with the federal Veterans Administration covering vets, active-duty personnel and their families. DeSantis says while there’s a lot of momentum tackling this issue, there remains much more to be done.