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Tunnel to Towers expands mission to leave no veteran behind

Two Augusts ago, I joined Frank Siller a few miles from his quest to reach this Somerset County (Shanksville, Pa.) borough as part of his 537-mile tribute walk to all those lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The walk started in Washington, D.C., and would end at Ground Zero in New York just in time for the 20th anniversary of the deadly attacks on the World Trade Center.

Siller lost his brother Stephen that day, a fireman who had just finished his shift at Brooklyn’s Squad 1 when he learned a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. The younger Siller strapped 60 pounds of gear on his back and ran through a closed Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, where he gave his life trying to save others.

Overcome with grief over the loss of his brother and looking for purpose to honor his sacrifice, Frank Siller explained on that walk that within pretty short order he started a foundation, eventually known as Tunnel to Towers, to honor what Stephen and others did that day.

Siller says today it was on that walk near Shanksville that he was inspired by the people he talked to about this growing problem of homeless veterans. “It wasn’t just hearing about it; it was the jolt of seeing them in person and talking to homeless veterans myself along my walk from D.C. to New York City that I knew it was time for Tunnel to Towers to now expand their mission to helping them.”

Up until that point, Siller explained, the mission of Tunnel to Towers was paying the mortgages of fallen first responders’ families “and building housing for critically injured veterans.”

By the time the last ceremony was finished on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Siller said he knew he wasn’t doing enough.

“So I went to the board of the foundation and told them we have to expand our purpose after what I have seen in this country; our mission must include eradicating homelessness among our veterans. … And we have to do it all across the country.”

Siller said the nonprofit organization’s goal was to work as much as it could with the Department of Veterans Affairs to build communities to house veterans: “Our goal is to leave no veteran behind.”

Last year in Los Angeles, Tunnel to Towers teamed with LA-based U.S. VETS, a nationwide veterans housing and services provider, for a grant that filled a multimillion-dollar gap in the financing for the construction of nearly 2,000 units of housing for homeless veterans. It was a redevelopment project that languished for years but now is expedited, thanks to Siller’s newfound purpose.

Last week Siller celebrated the opening of Tunnel to Towers Houston Veterans Village, which will house and service more than 100 veterans.

“The village is a former 160-room hotel that we fully converted into both permanent and transitional housing for veterans in Houston and the surrounding areas,” he said, adding U.S. VETS will offer a wide range of medical and mental health services at the facility.

Siller gets emotional when discussing the plight of any of our heroes in this country who have fallen through the cracks.

“Our veterans are part of a military that is only one-half of 1% of our population. When they return to society after their service, many of them have a hard time adjusting to a new life without the purpose they had when they served,” he said.

“They put everything on the line for us. The least we can do is to make sure they are not on the streets, that they are receiving the services and benefits they have earned and to make sure they have a roof over their head. No veteran should be homeless. That is unacceptable,” he said.

Siller stresses that it isn’t just about getting housing: “We will make sure they have access to mental health support, job training, employment assistance, and education assistance so they find that renewed purpose in their lives. They don’t want a handout. However, every one of us, especially them sometimes, need a little direction. … That is what we are here for — to leave none of our heroes behind, to let them know we have their back.”

— Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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