Bellevue Expo Connects Veterans to Services Needed – Omaha World-Herald | CarTailz

A look at the photo by OWH staff photographer Earle “Buddy” Bunker, which later won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944.

A Saturday event at Bellevue University aimed to connect those who have served with the services they need.

After the annual Nebraska Veterans Parade was postponed due to cold, rainy weather and then cancelled, the planned Military Expo became the main event. About 100 people gathered in the university’s administration hall to meet with local organizations focused on veterans and offering everything from health care to camaraderie.

Matthew Ritter, Relationship Manager for Military Programs at Bellevue University and Army Veteran, organized the fair. He says it’s important to bring organizations together under one roof to educate veterans about services available to them.

“People don’t know what’s out there,” Ritter said. “The military does a good job of making the transition from duty to civilian life — and it’s a transition that can be very tough for people — but once they’re out and ready, it’s hard to know what’s available.”

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Booths featured information on disability benefits, services for homeless veterans, free gym memberships and mental health support. Most of the attendees were veterans themselves, but family members and supporters also turned up.

José Puentes is not a veteran, but four of his brothers are – including Sgt. Manuel Puentes, who was declared an MIA in the Vietnam War and was never found. To honor his brother, Puentes travels to veterans’ events across the state in a decorated, camouflaged car with his brother’s photo and the names of other Omaha veterans on the sides.

“When I meet veterans, I see them as my brothers,” Puentes said. “And I see my brother in it.”

Many of the organizations at the show are focused on making sure veterans are connected to basic needs like health care and a furnished home. Mike Jackman, commander of the Bellevue Chapter of Disabled American Veterans, attends as many community events as possible to spread the word about the benefits to which veterans and their families are entitled.

The main goal of Moving Veterans Forward is to help veterans get back on their feet. When previously homeless veterans are brought into a home or apartment, they often have no furniture or household items to make a living in. The group provides them with furniture free of charge, and volunteers handle the entire moving process.

Collectively, they have helped settle more than 3,600 people in the Omaha area.

Ron Hernandez, the organization’s founder, says the needs of veterans’ communities are constantly changing. In response, they have begun offering peer support counseling, hosting car shows and other community events, and even providing a safe place for family visits for veterans with children in foster care.

“If I see a new thing that needs to be addressed, we’ll go after it,” Hernandez said.

Other organizations focus on another important aspect of veterans’ lives: the community. One such nonprofit organization is Dog Tags Garage, which provides a space for veterans to get free or low-cost auto repairs. It’s also just a space for veterans to be in community and “play with cars,” something the founders say can help combat PTSD.

Mark Hammer, one of the founders, said the group is particularly interested in including more female veterans.

“You take a male veteran with PTSD, and he has to fight to get basic care — he has to convince someone what’s going on with him and hope someone recognizes it,” Hammer said. “You put a veteran in the exact same spot, and she’s invisible. She is ignored. Our goal is to bring women veterans forward, bring them out of the shadows, put a wrench in their hands and build a community.”

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