Homeless former colonel's story illustrates broad problems facing U.S. vets

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Colonel Bob Freniere

Colonel Bob Freniere, right, doesn't dress in his Air Force Colonel's uniform anymore since he is retired but he carries it with him, along with all of his other possessions, now that he is living out of his van. Colonel Bob Freniere has had a distinguished career in the military. He's now living in his car. A look at the story of one homeless veteran, Nov. 19, 2013.  (Michael Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

He spent 30 years in the U.S. military, earned three graduate degrees and eventually worked his way to the Pentagon before retiring — but today, former Air Force Col. Robert Freniere, 59, is living out of his van, filling out job applications on public computers in libraries.

Freniere's story stands in stark contrast to common beliefs about unemployed, homeless veterans being made up of former soldiers from the rank-and-file. But an in-depth profile of Freniere by The Philadelphia Inquirer shows that problems affecting veterans don't discriminate based on chain of command; they go up to the top brass.

How could this have happened? The answer is complex and representative of what veterans face when they attempt to re-enter civilian life.

After retiring, it took Freniere a year to get a job with a defense contractor. When that work dried up, it was hard to find a civilian job that complemented his background in intelligence. A divorce, the costs of two kids' college expenses and struggles with dyslexia left Freniere calling his van his home.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, some 58,000 vets face life on the street each day, and "over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness," the organization says. "Only 7% of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly 13% of the homeless adult population are veterans."

Unemployment is an even bigger problem. The rate among veterans who have served since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon stands at 10 percent, or 246,000 out of work. For those under age 25, the rate increases dramatically to 30 percent.

But Freniere isn't giving up.

"I'm a military guy. I'm mission-oriented," he told the Inquirer. "I've got a lot of good experience. I've got two beautiful sons. I've got a van. I don't know how long it's going to hold up, but I've got it. I've got a lot of things to be thankful for."