'The dignity they deserve': Why Bret Michaels made burgers for homeless veterans in Phoenix

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Bret Michaels certainly wasn't expecting a hailstorm when he volunteered to serve burgers to veterans in early November in Phoenix while filming a "Homes for the Holidays" special to raise awareness and funds for the Tunnel to Towers Foundation.

But the Poison frontman definitely saw the humor in it, hamming it up at the grill while being pounded by hail outside Grand Veterans Village. The shelter is run by U.S. Vets, a national nonprofit that houses about 180 veterans transitioning from homelessness to housing on Grand Avenue just south of Indian School Road.

"I was cooking through the hailstorm," the singer recalled with a laugh after a chilly Thursday afternoon spent slinging burgers, mingling with veterans, posing for photos and frequently telling them, "You guys are the real rock star here" in that genuine Bret Michaels way.

"I go, 'This ain't gonna stop us. C'mon!," he said of the hailstorm.

"All the camera crew scattered on me. I go, 'Where did the crew go?' Remember in 'Caddyshack?' I laughed. I go, 'The hard stuff's not coming down for a while.' Meanwhile, the hamburgers are blowing away."

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Grilling burgers with the FDNY

Most of the actual grilling at on Thursday, Nov. 3, was done by members of the New York City Fire Department, although Michaels did show off his spatula technique.

"I said, 'I'm challenging the FDNY. I think I can barbecue better than them,'" Michaels said.

"And they're like, 'No, you can't.' So they put me to work. I didn't win. They were much better. Did you see me flip the burger? Did you see? I got the good flip in. They're like, 'All right. All right. It's for real.'"

Those New York City fire fighters and Michaels were in Phoenix to film a segment for a TV special aimed at raising funds to help Tunnel to Towers put Gold Star and fallen first responder families with young children in mortgage-free homes by encouraging viewers to pledge as little as $11 a month.

Tunnel to Towers was founded in 2001 in tribute to FDNY firefighter Stephen Siller, who died while saving other during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

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Bret Michaels, frontman for Poison, carries a tin full of burgers during an event for homeless veterans at Grand Veterans Village on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, in Phoenix.
Bret Michaels, frontman for Poison, carries a tin full of burgers during an event for homeless veterans at Grand Veterans Village on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, in Phoenix.

How to watch 'Homes for the Holidays'

"Homes for the Holidays" is airing from Thanksgiving weekend through New Year's Day across multiple network affiliates, including Fox, Scripps and Gray stations, as well as on the Circle Network and AXS TV.

It's hosted by country singer Ashley McBryde with appearances by Travis Tritt, Cole Hauser, Ian Munsick, Runaway June, Robert Randolph & The Family Band and Michaels, who treated the vets to an unplugged performance of Poison's "Something to Believe In."

Tunnel to Towers Vice President Bradley Blakeman also was at Grand Veterans Village for the barbecue and filming.

"Bret Michaels has been a huge supporter of Tunnel to Towers," Blakeman said. "And because of his family relationship to first responders and the military, he's really had an impact on supporting our efforts."

Michaels has a long history of helping the organization, Blakeman said, "whether it's paying off mortgages for the families of veterans killed in action, building smart homes for catastrophically injured vets or our new program of providing housing and servicing for homeless veterans."

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Bret Michaels' personal connection to veterans

Doing what he can for veterans is a calling that comes naturally to Michaels, who has  divided his time between a home in northern Scottsdale and his L.A. ranch for more than 15 years.

"It's personal for me," he said. "My father was a Navy vet. My sister is an Air Force vet. My Uncle Nick was killed in combat at the Battle of the Bulge. And then my cousin Bobby, who works for me, is a United States Marine, two Purple Hearts."

In addition to his work with the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, the glam-metal legend has supported Operation Home Front and the Wounded Warrior Project, appeared at events for Gold Star families and performed at operating military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.

Bret Michaels visiting troops overseas
Bret Michaels visiting troops overseas

"I saw what my dad went through, what my uncle went through coming back from combat, every one of my family members that served," he says.

"And they always taught me to have a victory over victim mentality. So that's what I'm trying to do, is honor them. I'm volunteering to come in and help raise awareness. I feel like I'm in it with them to win."

Michaels' Hometown Heroes Tour in 2019 was dedicated to veterans, members of the military and their families, inviting service members and first responders to be recognized on stage during his performances.

Last November, Michaels joined his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a Monday Night Football Salute to Service game where he honored veterans, including his father, the late Wally Sychak.

His 2023 Part-Gras Tour next summer will also honor veterans and first responders. For more information on the tour, so to bretmichaels.com.

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Giving veterans 'the dignity they deserve'

"This is as real as it gets for me, just to say 'Thank you,'" Michaels said.

"It's all about giving these veterans the dignity they deserve. A lot of them hit hard times when they come back, trying to adjust. So just me being able to help not only put a roof over their head but give them something that makes them feel hope, that's just really important to me."

He especially loved spending up-close-and-personal time with men and women who served.

"I wanted to make it so I was just hanging with everybody like I'd do if we were just having a barbecue," he said.

"They were smiling. It was making me smile. And that made for a great day. I took pictures with everybody here. And I wanted to do it."

Bret Michaels, frontman for Poison, at left, speaks with Dave Gibson, at right, during an event for homeless veterans at Grand Veterans Village on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, in Phoenix.
Bret Michaels, frontman for Poison, at left, speaks with Dave Gibson, at right, during an event for homeless veterans at Grand Veterans Village on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, in Phoenix.

'You never know whose life's gonna get changed'

Jonathan Wilson, a homeless veteran who recently moved into Grand Veterans Village from the Tucson VA with his service dog, bonded with Michaels over their shared love of rescue dogs, comparing notes on breeds.

Wilson's dog, Gunner, is a German Shepherd and blue heeler mix.

"My dog definitely loved it," Wilson said. "He loves attention."

It was a pretty big deal for Wilson, too.

"I grew up with his music, ever since I was a kid," he said.

Wilson, who was on active duty with the U.S. Army from 2007-2010, has been homeless off and on the past 11 years.

"I never got a chance to go overseas due to getting injured in pre-deployment training with my unit," he said. "I was with the 82nd Airborne out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina."

It meant a lot, seeing someone in Michaels' position spend that kind of time in Phoenix helping Wilson's fellow veterans.

"You don't see many people, especially those that have been at his status for such a long time, where their names are out there, doing something like this, especially for veterans that are essentially at their lowest," Wilson said.

"So it was definitely touching to see that there's somebody in a position to get the word out going, 'This is what's going on with the veterans,' coming out and doing something special for us when we need that positive memory he helped create to push us forward."

Wilson hopes the TV special will help raise awareness of what veterans have been going through.

"You never know whose life's gonna get changed," he said.

Tunnel to Towers' new housing for veterans in Phoenix

After the barbecue, Michaels headed off to see new housing created in a former Holiday Inn at Cactus Road and Black Canyon Highway.

Tunnel to Towers will open that location in conjunction with U.S. Vets in March.

"They'll have first-class apartments, they'll live in dignity and comfort there and they'll also have servicing on-site for whatever needs they have — physical, mental, job training," Blakeman said.

"So we're celebrating here what's about to happen, and that is a transition from this facility to our new facility."

There's still more to be done, of course.

"Thirty-eight thousand vets are on the streets of our cities in America," Blakeman said.

"And we're gonna change that. This is just another way of Americans being alerted to the fact that the mission isn't accomplished until every homeless veteran has a place to live in dignity and comfort along with the services they need."

For more information on Tunnel to Towers, go to t2t.org.

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Bret Michaels of Poison helps veterans find 'Homes for the Holidays'