After a 30-year military career in which he earned three graduate degrees, rose to the rank of colonel, and served as an aide to Pentagon brass, Robert Freniere can guess what people might say when they learn he’s unemployed and lives out of his van:
Why doesn’t this guy get a job as a janitor?
Freniere answers his own question: “Well, I’ve tried that.”
Freniere, 59, says that his plea for help, to a janitor he once praised when the man was mopping the floors of his Washington office, went unfulfilled. So have dozens of job applications, he says, the ones he has filled out six hours a day, day after day, on public library computers.
So Freniere, a man who braved multiple combat zones and was hailed as “a leading light” by an admiral, is now fighting a new battle: homelessness.
“You stay calm. That’s what we were trained for when I went through survival training,” he said recently in King of Prussia, where he had parked his blue minivan, the one crammed with all his possessions and held together with duct tape.
As of January 2012, more than 60,000 veterans were homeless, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Reducing that number has been a priority for the Obama administration – and the number of homeless veterans dropped 24 percent nationwide from 2009 to 2013. In Pennsylvania, however, it jumped 46 percent, to more than 1,400.
Joblessness among returning service members is even more common. Freniere describes a monthly lunch he has attended in Washington, a hushed tradition that he says attracts about 200 veterans. After they eat, the men and women who are unemployed stand up one by one to recite their service records, hoping someone else in the room will hire them.
Many, he says, are highly accomplished.
“He’s done a lot of things; he’s been a lot of places. . . . He’s got the gift of gab. Very smart,” said Adm. James Hogg, who officiated at Freniere’s retirement ceremony in 2006.
Last month, Freniere teared up as he asked Hogg for advice on finding a paycheck. Hogg was stunned.
“That’s crazy,” Hogg said in an interview. “With all his experience, especially in intelligence, there’s got to be a spot for him.”
Spots are hard to come by. Freniere, like many of his fellow down-on-their-luck veterans, does not match any hat-in-hand Hollywood image of homelessness. He receives an annual pension from the military of more than $40,000.
His struggle to find a job after retiring from the Air Force collided with the end of his marriage nearly two years ago. Unable to return to the home he shared with his estranged wife, and faced with expenses including bills for two sons in college and debts that mounted when he maintained a nicer lifestyle, he took up a nomadic existence.
Between spells on the couches of friends in multiple states, he sleeps occasionally in motels and other times in the dented blue van.
On Veterans Day, he found himself in King of Prussia. He had paid for a motel room the night before, to be near his younger son, Eric, a student at Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Wayne.
But Freniere could not afford another night, so he was packing his belongings into his minivan.
A motel guest who noticed Freniere’s Air Force cap and packed van struck up a conversation, and ended up paying for Freniere to stay another night.
That same week, Freniere agreed to share his story with an Inquirer reporter who had heard about his plight.
Over chips and salsa at a Baja Fresh in King of Prussia, he spent more than four hours engaged in a rambling conversation in which he quoted Dante, Andrew Jackson, and the novelist Leon Uris. He touched on his hobbies, from painting to playing guitar to learning new languages.
Freniere, who said he had been found to have dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, said he earned the nickname “Lightning” in the military for his constant motion and ability to talk anyone’s ear off.
“Lightning” mentions the screenplay he wrote about astronauts going to the moon, and the beginning of a romance novel. He describes competing in sailing regattas with friends. He says he once tried to start a business with his wife and mother selling football-themed stuffed ducks.
Some of what he says is not easily or independently verifiable. But the bulk of his story – and one that is confirmed by military records – is a story of service.
A career dream
It’s a story that goes back generations. In one of the many boxes in his van, Freniere holds on to letters written from France during World War I by a great-grandfather who, according to family lore, lied about his age so he could still fight at 60. Freniere’s father served in World War II and Korea, then raised his family on Air Force bases all over the world.
Freniere was born in 1954, the third of five children. He says his oldest brother served in Vietnam; his sister is a retired Navy nurse; and two more brothers are retired colonels.
Freniere and his two younger brothers became Eagle Scouts together, then went together to the Citadel, he said. Military records confirm that he joined the Army in 1976. His first post was in Schweinfurt, West Germany, where troops were then on guard against a Soviet attack.
There, Freniere said, he was tapped to lead an investigation into drug trafficking by soldiers on the base.
“All I had ever wanted to do was be in the Army,” Freniere said. “The Vietnam War had just ended, and the military really was very down on itself.”
In the drug investigation, he found a sense of purpose. “I didn’t know anything about drugs, because I’d never used them. I was a goody-two-shoes boy,” he said. “I finally felt like I was really doing something for my country, because I was getting rid of these bad guys.”
He said that his role in arresting members of his own platoon caused tension with his superiors. He left the Army for the Air Force, where he pursued his newfound interest in investigation as an intelligence officer.
As he moved through the ranks, he served in combat zones in Somalia, Panama, Haiti, and Kuwait, Freniere said. He also married his childhood neighbor, had two sons, and earned master’s degrees in political science and criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati and a master’s in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College.
Records show that Freniere moved to the Pentagon in 2000. He said he was there when it was hit by terrorists Sept. 11, 2001.
Two years later, he became special assistant to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the vice director of operations of the Joint Staff.
In 2005, Freniere said, he volunteered to go to Iraq. “Everybody thought I was nuts, especially my sons,” who were 15 and 13 at the time, he said. “But I’m a counterterrorism guy. That’s what I do.”
But as he was preparing to deploy, he said, he felt his legs go numb one day. He had suffered from back pain since he was injured in his 20s, when a soldier he was training to operate a tank fired the gun too soon.
Three days after the numbness began, Freniere underwent back surgery. Instead of flying to Iraq, he spent a year and a half convalescing, he said. In 2006, he retired from the Air Force.
The struggle for work
After his retirement, Freniere said, it took him a year to find work. Like many retired servicemen, he turned to jobs with defense contractors. Twice, the work took him to Afghanistan, he said.
When he came home, he had nowhere to go after separating from his second wife. (In an interview, she said that he does not help her pay the mortgage on their home.)
Freniere said he had not been able to find a contracting job since August 2012. He blames the federal sequestration for squeezing contractors of money and of the confidence to hire people. He has not lasted long at other jobs, as a substitute teacher and an executive in a company writing proposals for government grants.
One of his complaints about the latter job was that it took him too far from his sons – Bobby, enrolled at a community college in Virginia, and Eric, at VFMA.
Eric, 21, plans to follow in his father’s military footsteps. “My dad’s the most motivated person I’ve ever met in my whole life, and he’s living out of his van,” Eric said. “A full colonel with three master’s degrees? I don’t get it at all – it doesn’t make sense to me. If he had a job right now, we’d be fine. We’re not fine right now.”
Freniere says dyslexia makes focusing on a computer screen difficult. Online applications are so hard for him, he said, that tears well in his eyes as he describes his days at public libraries.
“How many applications can you fill out in a day? And it takes you six or seven hours, and then you don’t hear from any of them. You start getting hopeless,” he said.
But Freniere said that he had not lost hope, that he returns to tropes he learned back in survival training – “stay calm,” “get the job done” – when he needs comfort.
“I’m a military guy. I’m mission-oriented. You don’t give up,” Freniere says. “I’ve got a lot of good experience. I’ve got two beautiful sons. I’ve got a van. I don’t know how long it’s going to hold up, but I’ve got it. I’ve got a lot of things to be thankful for.”