Hundreds turn out for VetFest USA in Orlando

Army veteran Jolina Lawson returned home to Orlando in April after serving in Afghanistan.

Since then, she has been trying to find work as a corrections officer.


"It's hard to find work," Lawson, 24, said. "And it's not just me. Many of the veterans I served with are also having a tough time."

On Saturday, Lawson was among hundreds of people — many of them war veterans — who attended VetFest USA, a benefit festival in downtown Orlando for veterans groups.


Orlando businessman Bob Snow, who developed downtown's Church Street Station in the 1970s, said he helped organize VetFest as a way to help veterans, especially those returning home after serving overseas.

Florida is home to 1.5 million veterans, including 400,000 in Central Florida. Many of them depend on federal health care and other benefits.

However, those benefits are often not enough for veterans, especially those with disabilities or with mental conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, that make it difficult to find a job or a place to live.

"It breaks your heart to see them that way when they come back," Snow said.


Roland Bernier, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4305 of Winter Garden, an organization that took part in this weekend's event, said he often sees veterans struggling after returning home from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"They come and try to look for a job, but some end up getting frustrated when they can't and eventually end up giving up. And some decide to go live in the woods, for example," Bernier said.

He added the VFW is among several organizations that help guide veterans to job training and a place to live.

The two-day VetFest event concludes today. It is being held at the "Underfour Church Street Amphitheater," a downtown venue along a three-block stretch underneath Interstate 4 between Church Street and Central Boulevard.

It also includes food trucks, musical acts, artwork, a display of military hardware and a towering mechanical dinosaur called Robosaurus.

Organizations also benefiting from the event include the United Service Organizations, the UDT-SEAL Association and the Joe Kittinger F-4 Vietnam Memorial Fund.

Kittinger — a longtime friend of Snow's — is a retired Air Force colonel who flew 150 missions over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He also spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in Hoa Lo Prison, aka the "Hanoi Hilton."

Kittinger is now trying to raise $180,000 to display an F-4D Phantom jet — similar to the plane he flew in Southeast Asia — in Col. Joe Kittinger Park at Orlando Executive Airport.


Tickets are $15 for adults, and children age 12 and younger are admitted free. All groups will keep the full proceeds from the sales of tickets.

"I'm glad to see that the money is going to help veterans," said Lawson, who is now studying to become a police officer. or 407-420-5718