COCOA, Fla. – Like a soldier on patrol, Col. (R) Nathan Thomas looks off into the distance.
“The veterans, they normally walk up from over here or over there,” he says, pointing away from the busy intersection of State Road 520 and U.S. Highway 1.
Thomas stands near the entrance to the Missionary Baptist Church in Cocoa, with the large white buildings casting a shadow over folding tables set up for the church’s weekly drive-thru food pantry.
Thomas is here as a volunteer, but the people he’s looking out for will most likely be on bikes or walking.
Thomas teamed up in 2006 to create the nonprofit Welcome Home vets, Inc.
Many of the veterans he serves are homeless and living in the woods nearby.
Welcome Home Vets assists veterans living in Brevard County with medical, financial and spiritual aid, along with options for vocational skills training.
“The vets are kind of funny. Sometimes you might see one or two, then the next week you’ll see 10 or 15,” Thomas said as he waited for someone to arrive.
A steady flow of traffic wound its way through the parking lot as volunteers loaded heavy boxes of food into the trunks of waiting vehicles.
Thomas took a position at the front of the line and helps guide the drivers with military precision.
“We get them in, we line them up and we get them out,” Thomas said with a smile.
Thomas served 39 years in the Army, rising through the ranks to colonel while serving the 82nd Battalion at Fort Bragg.
“What we do is give assistance to the vets by giving them information,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he was inspired to give back early in life.
“I’m a veteran and the biggest part of why I do it is because I came up in the Civil Rights movement when people didn’t have a lot of food,” he said.
Thomas said watching the leaders of the time showed him the power of community.
“That impressed me so much because we can’t always depend on the government but community-wise, we can do great things.”
Welcome Home Vets promotional brochure includes a long list of services, including grants, legal advice and support for deployed units.
“Some of these veterans, they don’t even know they have benefits or they’ve given up on society and don’t want anything to do with government. So we go in and tell them, ‘We can get you this, you don’t have to live out here. We can process the paperwork for you.’”
It took about an hour for volunteers to hand out 45 boxes of food they assembled. Thomas speculates the cold weather kept many of the homeless veterans away.
“We can’t make them show up,” he said, adding that he’ll be back next week. “You do it because it’s here in your heart and soul.”