NEW PORT RICHEY- "I want to begin by recognizing all the heroes here today, our true American heroes - not our politicians, certainly not our politicans, not our actors - our true American heroes are our veterans."
The audience exploded into applause, cheers and whistles as U.S. Rep, Gus Bilirakis, Palm Harbor, took the stage and began his opening remarks at the 2013 Veterans Resource Fair.
The lawmaker thanked his father, former U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War. "I'm proud to continue your legacy of helping our veteransd in Congress."
Bilirakis' speech was part of his opening remarks for the veterans resource program last Saturday, June 29, at River Ridge Middle-High Scgool. During its first six years the veterans fair was held at East Lake High School. After redistrcting in 2012, the River Ridge campus was more centrally located within Bilirakis' House district.
The program, which included opening remarks by Bilirakis and his father and others who support further resources for veterans, also included a presentation of the colors by the nation's only all-amutee color guard, the Amputee Veterans of America Support Team and singer Tony Orlando.
Prior to the program, veterans, active duty military and their families were invited into the high school's gymnasium, where more than 70 organizations, agencies and charities had set up to provide resources to veterans on everything from mental health services and hospice to Pasco Career Central and housing.
One of the organizations there, the Pasco Veteran's Council, headed up by Army and Desert Storm veteran John Arias, gave out free reading glasses and provided information on their services, which are focused on helping homeless vets.
Arias said Pasco has 47,000 veterans residing within county lines, 1,400 of which are registered as homeless. He said the number is much higher and that anyone working the west coast could find thousands more if they dedicated the time to beating through the heavily-wooded areas they might be living in.
"Sometimes I'll break out the cane and trudge through the woods and it takes a lot out of me but.." Arias trailed off, tears brimming in his eyes."It's veterans helping veterans and we're all brothers and sisters."
Arias said the council helps collect food boxes for the local homeless, as well as donations of sleeping bags and personal care items. They also work one-on-one with vets to get them identification cards through the Veterans Affairs hospitals. They're even working on a congressional proposal that will expedite the claims and appeals process for veterans seeking help.
"It's currently backed up for two-and-a-half years and even the top priority cases can take six to eight months," Arias said.
The organization requires no member fees to join and is welcoming of veterans from all walks of life.
"Veterans already paid their dues," Arias said. "They don't need to pay more just to be a part of a veterans organization."