TOMAH, Wis. -- The Tomah Veterans Assistance Foundation has been helping thousands of homeless veterans get back on their feet for the past 15 years, but during that time it’s always operated out of its office at the VA center. The VAF officially opened its Tomah offices in downtown Tomah on Friday.
The foundation said its time on the VA grounds was very beneficial for helping veterans coming through the center, but its main goal has always been to get out into the community to help veterans from the surrounding rural areas find a home, a job or provide personal counseling.
“Us being here makes us much more visible in the public,” said Colin Moten, president of the Veterans Assistance Foundation. “Since we've opened we have limited services as of right now, but we're seeing a steady stream of veterans coming in. They see the sign because we're on the major road and right out in the public that they show up and they're asking for services.”
The VAF helps about 150 to 200 vets every year.
Thomas Burgess spent more than 20 years serving in the army, but after he was discharged, he always had trouble finding where his home is. That is, until after getting help from the VAF.
Burgess is somewhat of a pro when it comes to cooking.
“They call me the grill master in my family,” said Burgess. “Any time they want something grilled they call me.”
But even with the grill master title, he knows he's not perfect.
“Of course,” said Burgess. “Trial and error that's part of learning. I try not to burn stuff though.”
And that's how it is in other parts of his life too. He spent most of his youth in the army traveling all over the world and the U.S. But returning back to civilian life was a little harder than he thought.
“Dealing with a lot of my anxieties, I used drugs and alcohol to cope,” said Burgess. “I'm diagnosed with PTSD and I have injuries that happened in the service and marital issues so I really didn’t know how to cope with them without alcohol or drugs.”
Soon, he knew it was time for a change. He found help through the Veterans Assistance Foundation, getting personal counseling and help through the homelessness program. It’s all valuable assistance that he now can't imagine where he'd be without it.
“Probably in jail, homeless on the street, maybe dead who knows,” said Burgess. “Just thank goodness that I'm not.”
And now he's living his life for others.
“I have children and grandchildren I want to see grow up and I want them to be proud of me,” said Burgess. So I decided to change my life.”
Burgess said his next goal is to go to culinary school to become a chef and maybe someday run his own business.
The VAF is currently only one of two programs in the state that is serving both male and female veterans. It is working toward helping military families in the future.