Find more photos from the graduation here.
Thirteen happy and formerly homeless Veterans were the center of attention at a graduation ceremony for the 2013 Homeless Veterans Apprenticeship Program class Nov. 15 in Washington, D.C.
The graduates had just completed a yearlong training program to learn skills to be cemetery caretakers at VA national cemeteries. They were trained and will now hold full-time caretaker positions at national cemeteries in Mountain Home, Tenn.; Puerto Rico; Black Hills, S.D.; Bay Pines, Fla.; and Fort Bliss, Texas.
Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Steve L. Muro offered remarks to the graduates.
“Today’s ceremony is about choices,” he said. “We’re here today because each of you chose to seize the opportunity that was offered to you—and you chose to see this commitment through.”
The National Cemetery Administration launched the Homeless Veterans Apprenticeship Program in 2012 as a way to support Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki’s initiative to end Veterans’ homelessness by 2015.
During the past year, the candidates participated in both classroom and on-the-job training. Now that they have completed the program, they can elect to remain at their training cemetery, compete for positions at other federal facilities or take their skills to the private sector.
NCA will build on the success of last year’s pilot program by expanding opportunities to other career fields such as cemetery representative, grounds, facilities and equipment maintenance. According to participants, the opportunity to serve their fellow Veterans and families in their hour of need has been the highlight of their experience and a great honor.
“Yours is a sacred trust,” said Sec. Shinseki to the Army, Air Force, Marine and Navy Veterans. “You will be the last to serve our nation’s Veterans—the last to stand watch while they sleep. Care for them as you would care for those you served beside. They deserve it.”
The Veterans, who received a diploma, a coin and a NCA cap, said the program helped them feel like they were again part of the community, and had another chance to serve.
“I felt empty inside when I was homeless,” said U.S. Air Force Veteran James Barger, “but I knew if someone gave me a chance I could still contribute to my community. This program did that for us. We’re whole again.”
Brian Taylor, from Sturgis, S.D., agreed. The 46-year-old fought back tears as he talked about his new chance at life and what it meant to be part of the VA employee family.
“Being one of the first graduates from this program feels amazing,” the Navy Veteran said after the ceremony. “It meant a lot to see everyone clap for us as we got our certificates and I could tell they were proud of us. I want to make sure I do my job well and honor all Veterans.”
The 2014 Homeless Veterans Apprenticeship Program class has already begun with 24 new participants.