San Antonio Express News
By Martin Kuz, Staff Writer
December 26, 2015
“They all want to talk about veterans, especially if they get in front of a TV camera or a crowd, but then they never follow through.” Bill Collier
LAREDO — John Perez thinks back on his experience in war as a time when life made sense.Photo: BOB OWEN, Staff / San Antonio Express-News
Deployed to Iraq in 2006 with the Marines, he served as an operations specialist, arranging the logistics for truck convoys delivering fuel and supplies to U.S. troops. He enjoyed the complexity of the work as much as the clarity of purpose.
What bewildered him was returning to civilian life after his honorable discharge in 2008.
He left the military hoping to save a marriage that unspooled over the next two years. In 2012, he lost his job at a retail store when his bosses refused to alter his work schedule so that he could attend community college.
As Perez started taking classes, he ran through a series of low-wage jobs that paid too little for him to keep his apartment. By this summer, he had slipped into homelessness, couch-surfing from one friend’s house to another.
He recovered a measure of stability in August after learning about a veterans transitional center housed inside the Rio Grande Plaza Hotel on the fringe of Laredo’s downtown. Since opening in February, the program has provided shelter for more than 100 homeless veterans, creating a refuge from uncertainty.
“This place has been a godsend,” said Perez, 29, looking out the wall-to-wall windows on one side of his seventh-floor room, with views of the border-town sprawl that spreads across the Rio Grande into Nuevo Laredo. “It gives you a chance to catch your breath.”
A Lubbock oilman whose late father served in World War II, Collier, who knew of Lopez’s advocacy work, offered to provide rent-free rooms to homeless veterans. Lopez agreed to coordinate the transitional program, connecting them to support services through the VA and nonprofit groups that could steer them toward independence.
The two men anticipated that the center would attract perhaps 10 to 15 veterans. By spring, more than 40 had moved into the 15-story hotel, some with spouses and young children.
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