BEDMINSTER — Stacia McDonough knew little about the Vietnam War and the struggles of its U.S. veterans prior to marrying her husband John, but the experiences he shared prior to his premature passing have led her on a decade-long mission to help all military veterans in her area of New Jersey and beyond.

Starting in June 2019, those efforts became the nonprofit, volunteer organization Independence for Veterans, so named because John's birthday was the Fourth of July.

The ultimate goal of this group is to build "tiny homes" for homeless New Jersey veterans to live in at no cost, outside of utility bills, but fundraisers have been scarce so far due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Activity is ramping up now, though, with a food drive running through Memorial Day for the transitional housing program on the VA campus in Lyons, and a full-scale fundraising event scheduled for Oct. 18 at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.

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For McDonough, it continues the community work that began with her launch of a holiday-season program called "They Kept Us Safe, Let's Keep Them Warm," which has collected new winter wear for homeless veterans for several years.

She said anything that can be done to help this population is a positive, because words almost can't describe the numbers: 22 suicides of American veterans every day, a number that increases during the holidays, and 40,000 homeless vets sleeping on the street nightly across the country.

"For all of their sacrifices that these men have made, to see them homeless is just heartbreaking, especially when a lot of them are homeless for financial reasons," McDonough said.

And all too often, the government is of little to no help, the system is "beyond broken" according to McDonough, and the pride of these veterans keeps them from truly asking for help.

That's why another stipulation of the tiny home program would be that if a veteran has to vacate their home for any reason, another homeless vet would be given the chance to move in.

"They just really want a stable, normal life," McDonough said. "That's all they want, especially after some of the things they've seen. My husband had very, very bad PTSD, so I understand that."

The personal interactions and hands-on experiences McDonough has had with many veterans have decreased over the last year due to the pandemic, but she is grateful that she's still been able to make some connections.

"I'm trying to be their voice," she said.

Find out more at independenceforveterans.org.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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