Miss America Fights for Homeless Veterans
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 1999 Homeless veterans have a beautiful, articulate and passionate advocate fighting to get them off the streets and back in a productive role in mainstream America.
She is Heather R. French, Miss America 2000.
"As the daughter of a disabled Vietnam veteran, I pledge my heart, my hands and my voice to helping homeless veterans fight the battles they face on our nation's streets. So they don't face these battles along, I urge all Americans to lend their support to these often forgotten men and women," French said on national television the night she was crowned Miss America.
That's the message the Kentucky beauty queen brought to the nation's capital Oct. 21 when she launched her Miss America platform during a press conference on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. She said that's her promise, not only to homeless veterans, but also to all veterans -- all Americans.
Surrounded by members of Congress, various veterans organizations and a throng of media, French said her upbringing gives her an awareness of issues the general public lacks.
Her father, former Marine Corps Sgt. Ronnie French, 51, used to take her with him when he went to Veterans Affairs hospitals for treatment. "That's how I heard firsthand stories about how these men and women were affected and the devastation that happens to a family because of war," said the Maysville, Ky., native.
In her platform statement, French said, her father's struggle changed her life forever. Complications from combat wounds have prevented her father from working most of his adult life. "Rheumatoid arthritis has spread throughout his body. It even hurts when people shake his hand," she said.
"Through the eyes of my father, I have seen challenges that face our nation's homeless veterans every day: the pain of psychological trauma, especially post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from the perils of war; the struggle to overcome drug and alcohol addictions; the heartache of rejection from potential employers, landlords, neighbors and sometimes, even friends," she said.
This isn't her first effort to help veterans. Before becoming Miss America, she was a volunteer fund-raiser efforts at Veterans Affairs hospitals and participated in the Kentucky-wide Vietnam veterans awareness campaign.
French is awed by the dramatic and rapid impact her remarks have had on American's emotions. "I've only been Miss America for four weeks and this veterans issue has taken on a form of its own," she said. "Just mentioning this on national television one time during the Miss America pageant has made such a national impact. I was blown away. People are donating money and writing checks in my name to veterans' centers across the country. And I hadn't even started my tours."
She recounted the story of a thrice-wounded Vietnam veteran who gave her his Purple Heart medal. He asked her to carry it with her on her travels, she said. French travels around the country about 20,000 miles per month addressing her homeless veterans platform and other issues.
"I'll carry this throughout the entire year to remind people that these men and women paid the ultimate sacrifice," French said, holding up the Purple Heart during her press conference.
Much of her efforts are aimed at the younger generation because, she said. "While they represent only about 18 percent of this country's population right now, they are a 100 percent of the voice of tomorrow," she said. "They're the movers and shakers that will shake the nation when it comes to veterans' concerns. They'll be taking care of you and me, so they need to know how to do it."
She called Roosevelt Thompson to the podium as an example of a successful former homeless veteran. The Vietnam veteran spent more than four years on the streets of Washington.
"The good news is, he, like thousands of our veterans, sought help and got it," French said. "He made a great connection with the Xerox Corp. while working in a medical care program at the Veterans Affairs hospital called Compensated Work Therapy. He got an opportunity to work for Xerox as an assistant account coordinator for three years."
Thompson, who testified before Congress in September about the plight of homeless veterans, said, "I've dedicated my efforts to raise the attention of the American people to the plight of homeless veterans in this country. We can't continue to turn our backs on our sons and daughters who made our freedom possible but who are now homeless."