Amid a national uproar over the failings of federal health-care programs for veterans, First Lady Michelle Obama shined the spotlight Wednesday on Doran Hocker, a Minnesota man working to reduce homelessness among vets.

Before an audience of hundreds advocates for veterans and the homeless, Obama shared the story of Doran Hocker, a former homeless veteran who found his footing after relocating to Minnesota in 2003.

After a deployment to Korea during the Vietnam War, the Air Force veteran returned home in the 1970s only to fall in the “wrong people,” delve into drugs and alcohol, isolate himself from family and drift into three decades of homelessness, Obama said.

“Finally, Doran decided to turn his life around. He wrote down a list of 21 things he wanted to accomplish -- things like opening a bank account, cooking in his own kitchen. He moved from Detroit to St. Paul, Minnesota … he got into housing and a substance abuse treatment program,” Obama said. “And today, Doran has checked off all 21 items on that list.  He’s cooking in his own kitchen … Paying his own rent.  He even hugged his daughter who he’d been separated with for almost 25 years. “

The 62-year-old now works as a case manager with the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, one of the agencies that helped him turn his life around.

“He’s dedicating his life to making sure that every veteran who comes home will never have to go through what he did,” Obama said.

As part of Wednesday’s event, the First Lady welcomed some 20 mayors, including St. Paul’s Chris Coleman, who are among dozens around the country participating in the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.

In 2010, the Obama administration iset a goal of ending homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. Veteran homelessness has dropped by 24 percent since then, but there were still nearly 58,000 homeless veterans as of January 2013, according to the most recent statistics available.

The First Lady was announcing the commitment of 77 mayors, four governors, including Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, and four county officials to participate in the challenge. Minneapolis and St. Paul joined in January. Coleman wants the Twin Cities to follow the lead of Phoenix and Salt Lake City, which have effectively ended homelessness for veterans in their communities.

Hocker's transformation, which he called a "long, humbling journey," inspired Coleman and others gathered at the White House on Wednesday.

“It’s a powerful story both about how veterans can end up homeless and what that path out of that is,” Coleman said.

When he returned to the U.S. from his tour of duty, Hocker said the first thing he did was kneel down and kiss the ground. 

Obama told the audience: “When a veteran comes home kissing the ground, it is unacceptable that he should ever have to sleep on it."

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