BONITA SPRINGS — As a celebration warmed up in Riverside Park, Ronald Lamont settled beneath some nearby trees and dug into a plate of food.
Cafe of Life’s daily meal was in full swing, and Lamont was oblivious to the goings-on in the park across the street.
“Veterans Day is today?” he remarked at one point.
One would expect a former Army cook and Korean War vet to know, but Lamont has other things on his mind. He’s homeless, broke after a failed business attempt, and making plans to leave town.
“I’m not living in my car, but it’s one step up,” he said, declining to say where he slept.
Lamont, 80, is one of tens of thousands of veterans whose struggles remain unseen on a holiday dedicated to their celebration. The Veterans Administration estimates 107,000 vets were homeless in 2009, many of them suffering from mental health and substance abuse problems.
Cafe of Life attendee John Astolfie, 55, said it isn’t uncommon for veterans to show up for the daily meal. He pointed to a middle-aged man in a blue sweatsuit.
“Jim, he sleeps in his car,” he said. “There’s a lot of them sleep in the woods.”
Naples homeless shelter St. Matthew’s House has seen 439 veterans come through its doors during the past three years, according to Mike Vallee, director of ministries and programs. Last year alone, nearly 8.5 percent of residents were veterans. Five currently live at the shelter.
Vallee, himself a Desert Storm veteran, said many of the residents are younger, having served in Desert Storm, the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan.
Over lunch, three current residents recalled their own time in the military.
Greg White, 55, joined the Air Force after the Vietnam War and was stationed abroad. He later used the GI Bill to attend college but left early to pursue theater in Philadelphia, he said. He ended up in hotel management, and he drank away much of his adulthood.
When the economy was good, White could feed his addiction and still keep a job, he explained. But his drinking only set him up for a harder fall during the recession.
“It just snowballed, and I was making poor decisions,” he explained.
Bruce Schwetje, 60, served in the Air Force for just over two years before the regimentation got to him and he left, he recalled. Veterans Day reminds him of his father, he said, a World War II veteran who lived through Pearl Harbor.
“All of the stuff that he must have went through,” he reflected. “It’s amazing.”
Joe Sapienza, 52, served in the Marines between 1975 and 1981, he said. It was peacetime service, but it was still gritty, Sapienza noted. He recalled patrolling the border between Thailand and Vietnam and guarding the U.S. embassy in Liberia.
“It’s tough work,” Sapienza said of the military. “It can be a very hard life, even in peacetime.”
He returned home at 23, tired of being away from friends. He now wishes he’d made a career out of the Corps. Last year, Sapienza was let go from the commercial cleaning company where he worked for five years. Another job fell through in May, putting him on the street for a month.
All three men said they look back on their service with pride, and all feel like Veterans Day belongs to them, too, even if they didn’t attend the day’s events.
“I guess you don’t have to display it publicly,” Sapienza said. “It can be a personal thing, too.”
In Bonita Springs, Lamont said he chooses not to dwell on his military service, for fear of bad memories. Originally from San Diego, he was drafted into the Army for the war, trained in Japan as a supply clerk and then dumped into fighting in Korea, he recalled.
He eventually found his way to an Army kitchen, where he worked the rest of his war service as a cook.
“The thing I learned from being over there was camaraderie. ... People would risk their lives for you,” Lamont said. “It was a wonderful thing to see.”
Today, the war is like another lifetime, Lamont said, and one he’d prefer not relive. He’s instead excited about leaving town, maybe traveling overseas.
As Cafe of Life staff cleaned up around him and the park celebration began in earnest, Lamont lingered beneath the trees. The events were out of view, but he didn’t plan to get any closer.
“I’m not into big crowds,” he said.