PENSACOLA — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a new $8 million initiative to provide veterans with down payment and closing costs assistance to purchase new homes in Florida, part of a broader effort to ease veterans' transition from active duty service to civilian life and attract more veterans to the state.


The governor announced the initiative, officially called the "Salute Our Soldiers Military Housing Loan Program," at the University of West Florida on Wednesday. The announcement came just hours after he was at the Pensacola International Airport to announce a $4.8 million grant for the expansion of ST Engineering's new campus in Pensacola.


The military housing loan program will take effect March 2, the governor told reporters, veterans and UWF staff gathered in the president's office building on Wednesday. It will be available to both active duty military personnel and veterans, and will be administered by the Florida Housing Finance Corp.


The plan will also offer assistance for securing low-interest mortgages.


"These funds will assist over 1,000 veterans and active duty members by making the home buying process easier and more affordable. ... More veterans calling Florida home is good for our state," DeSantis said. "We look forward to the positive impacts that this program will have on the lives of our veterans. But this is also a selfish thing, because the veterans have a very positive impact on communities here in the state of Florida."


Florida is home to approximately 1.5 million veterans — the third highest number in the nation, behind California and Texas — according to the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs. Nearly 60,000 of those veterans live in Escambia or Santa Rosa counties.


The new housing loan assistance program is a small slice of a bigger policy pie. DeSantis has taken a pronounced interest in veterans' affairs during his time in office, launching several initiatives geared toward veterans and active duty military members, including suicide reduction and transition assistance.


Before the announcement Wednesday, DeSantis had a closed-door roundtable discussion at UWF with local active duty military members and veterans to discuss his initiatives to streamline services for those who are leaving the service and heading into civilian life.


Roy Clark, the legislative and cabinet affairs director for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, was at the roundtable meeting and said the focus was on determining how the state could better synchronize services for veterans across the state.


The Forward March initiative, as it's being called, is an effort to coordinate with the various groups in the state to help veterans, making it easier for veterans to find the information they need without being bogged down in paperwork, 1-800 phone numbers or dead ends.


"Beginning in April of last year, we went to eight locations (throughout Florida) and we pulled together everyone in the community who had an interest in helping veterans — for-profit, not-for-profit, county services, city services, the VA itself — and we all got in a room and we talked about critical issues," Clark said. "What's being done to solve homelessness? What's being done to provide cash assistance? What's being done on transitioning, and not just jobs, but transitioning these guys and girls back into the community? That's what we talked about at the round table today."


The governor touted the Forward March initiative in his speech Wednesday, saying it also provides legal services to military members who need to get out of their housing leases when they go on deployment.


DeSantis said the plan was inspired by his own troubles transitioning out of the military, an experience he described as "mind-numbing."


"We're going to be working to provide the veterans at all the military installations here in Florida with something simple and digestible, that shows them the different types of resources available for veterans who are living in the state of Florida," DeSantis said.


Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.