Helping Worcester’s veterans
By Bernard Whitmore
“About 4,500 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq and about 1,800 have been killed in Afghanistan. Some 633,000 veterans ~ one out of every four of the 2.3 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan ~ have a service-connected disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” – Aaron Smith; @CNNMoney; April 27, 2012
When I considered that these statistics pertain to just the post-9/11 era, I began to appreciate the magnitude of the service-related disabilities that present a growing challenge to our country. Fortunately, local groups are responding to meet this need; what follows are the stories of two such organizations.
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I met with the founding president of the local Project New Hope, William H. Moore, and one of his board members, Kathee Bolack. They were stoked with enthusiasm from their latest event and excited to discuss their mission. Moore served in the U.S. Air Force as a Crash Rescue Firefighter from 1976-80 and was injured in a successful rescue of two pilots from a burning F-111 and discharged honorably with a service-connected disability.)
Bill Moore: I started Project New Hope in 2011 to provide free weekend retreats for veterans and their families. Because you can’t just treat the veteran, you have to treat the spouse and the children. A veteran’s disability affects the entire family.
Pulse: How did Project New Hope come about?
BM: I’m retired, a disabled vet. Several years ago the VA (United States Department of Veterans Affairs) rated me at 100 percent service-connected disabled. That put me at unemployable status. When I told my wife I was retiring, horror came over her face! She was afraid I’d be hanging around the house or at the American Legion post.
So I got into a lot of area nonprofit organizations. But my forte is veterans’ services ~ helping our brother and sister veterans. Then, surfing the Web, I came across Project New Hope out in Minnesota. I contacted the founder and flew out to Minnesota to spend a weekend with their organization.
I liked what I saw there. That was December 2010. By January 2011, I had mine up and running! Four months later, I went to see a friend, Tracy Vaillancourt. Her only child, Brian Moquin, was killed in Afghanistan in 2006. I told her I wanted to offer free weekend retreats that would include holistic care. She wanted to be a part of it and is now Project New Hope’s vice president.
Now, we’re in our fourth year. We’re all volunteers; none of us on the board of directors get paid. We’re good stewards of our donations. We don’t have any overhead!
You see, the VA can’t do it alone. Medication is not the answer, either. They can push pills and more pills on you; that just opens the door for more problems. So what we did is to develop around holistic care. We do yoga, meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy. The veterans really seem to gravitate toward these alternative therapies.
So we found a need for a woman’s retreat. And we did it.
We saw a need to address traumatic brain injury. So we did the TBI retreat.
Military sexual abuse … there was a need to be addressed. We thought it would be mostly women attending this retreat, but there were more male veterans than female.
We saw a population of veterans, the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) community. There was a need to connect them. They’re our fellow brothers and sisters. We saw a need, so we organized a special retreat.
Pulse: How do you bring hope to veterans?
BM: Many veterans have done multiple deployments; the military suicide rate is through the roof. They’re coming back home and can’t find jobs. They’re losing their homes. It’s overwhelming. Some have PTSD and untreated traumatic brain injury.
They’re overwhelmed and wonder, ‘”What’s the sense of my being here? Things feel as if they’re caving in on me… I might as well kill myself.”
Project New Hope is here to provide resources from local institutions. Plus, we offer the experience of fellow veterans and their spouses; we call this “boots on the ground.”
Pulse: But there can be a stigma associated with asking for help.
BM: When I came out of the service, I was diagnosed with PTSD. My goal had been to get on the Worcester Fire Department. Many veterans’ dream is to leave the service and work in law enforcement. But if you’re treated for PTSD, you might as well kiss that dream goodbye.
That’s the stigma. It is getting better, but as a veteran, you don’t feel you can trust that anything’s different.
Consider the stigma with the LGTBQ group! At our retreat, there was so much awareness for the need to listen to these veterans tell of how they were treated; how they didn’t get the same benefits that, for example, my spouse got.
It opened our eyes! Kathee can relate to this because one of her sons is married to an Army Sapper (engineer) in Fort Drum.
Kathee Bolack: They’re actually not married yet; they’re in a committed relationship. Although Matt, my son’s partner, is out with some, he is not out to his command because he is still afraid of the stigma. That’s why they’re not married yet, because they are afraid of whatever’s going to happen.
My son-in-law has done multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and is highly decorated. But since Matt came out, some people treat him a lot differently. One young man that he pulled from a burning vehicle told him he shouldn’t be gay.
BM: We want to give veterans hope. It’s not a handout; it’s a hand up.
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Friendly, calm and focused. As executive director of Veterans Inc., Denis Leary has an exciting story to tell, yet he does so in a measured cadence, punctuated with enthusiastic pride. Together, Leary and Vincent Perrone, the president of Veterans Inc., have built an organization the community takes immense pride in.
Leary welcomed me into his office and, with a chuckle, chided me for asking to borrow his pen. “But you’re the writer!” he said with a laugh. Then, it was time to get down to business.
Denis Leary: Veterans Inc. started 22 years ago, when a well-intentioned group of Vietnam veterans came together because they found out the National Guard Armory was possibly going to be demolished. This group decided to do something about saving the building because they were hoping that it could become a place for fellow veterans who had fallen on hard times related to substance abuse or mental illness or homelessness.
So they set about a task ~ enlisting volunteers from the community, as well as folks from the carpenters, plumbers and electrical unions to come here nights and weekends ~ working to fix the building as best as they could.
When they first opened, there were nine cots and a hot plate. Since then, we have grown to where we are now the largest provider of services to veterans and their families in New England, with programs in all six states. We operate 265 transitional housing beds every night of the year. We provide comprehensive employment training services and housing search and food services. The most recent addition to our service delivery program is what’s called Supportive Services for Veteran Families.
For the first time in history, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has released funding to community organizations, like ours, to allow us to actually write a check to the landlord, electric company or car repair company if it means that it will make the difference to keep the veteran where they’re currently living so they don’t become homeless.
Pulse: What is your personal connection with the mission of Veterans Inc.?
DL: I’m a social worker by training. My entire life has been spent in social work. But when I saw the plight of veterans, it touched another nerve for me ~ as it would for any American.
It’s a tragedy to be homeless, but it’s a real outrageous statement to say that there’s a homeless veteran in town. When you think of the fact that a veteran has taken a pledge and put their life on the line for us, and then they come back to this country and ends up homeless? That just seems wrong to me.
The core mission of Veterans Inc. is to be the final safety net for veterans and their families. So when all else fails, you got us.
What Veterans Inc. does is go through a process with hundreds of veterans every month, trying to transition them from this terrible state of having been homeless through several stages that includes family reunification, employment stability and housing stability ~ to be able to get them back to where they rightly deserve to be, which is independent living with a job in the country they fought for.
And now we’re preparing for something big. We’re trying to ramp up our services and develop our expertise for a huge cohort of veterans coming back to this country from Iraq and Afghanistan with an entire list of needs, not the least of which is employment.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often presents itself in a very visible way. The veteran is acting out; he or she is violent, is abusing substances. Other times, it’s kind of hidden, smoldering inside the veteran. Sometimes it doesn’t emerge for a year, when suddenly the relationship with their family deteriorates; relationship with their employer ~ if they have one ~ deteriorates. Before you know it, they’re in serious jeopardy.
We are becoming more and more skilled, through training programs that we have with our staff, to understand the proper diagnosis of PTSD and its appropriate treatment. These are two very important clinical skills that all of our direct care staff are going to have to continue improving over the next several months.
But here’s the good news about PTSD: It’s absolutely treatable. You can get better and recover from PTSD. That’s the wonderful news!
Pulse: Are you willing to share stories of success?
DL: We have the benefit of seeing the veterans when they arrive on Day 1, of accepting them with open arms into our program. We also have the benefit of seeing what they look like, how they feel, what they’ve just been through. How discouraged, how demoralized, how defeated they feel on Day 1.
What’s wonderful ~ something I bring home every night ~ is this wonderful feeling you get over several months, watching the transformation that the veteran goes through when they realize they’ve just stepped through a doorway into a facility where there’s a veterans’ culture. A culture that includes familiar surroundings, not only from the staff but also from their peers.
In this transformation, you get to see a human being go from one of the lowest points in their life. Then over a period of a few months, they reconnect with their family; they have prospects for a job; we’ve gotten them the proper medical attention, so that some nagging health worry they’ve had has been diagnosed and treated. A lot of times, this may be the first time they’ve been in recovery for substance abuse; their thinking becomes more clear.
Then, what you start to see is a general sense of appreciation. There’s nothing cooler than that! There are jobs in the world with people like Donald Trump making millions of dollars. But what are those jobs like at the end of the day? You can count a lot of money in the bank, but is it in any way as rewarding as this?
The answer is: I don’t think so; there’s no job that’s more rewarding.
To learn more about Veterans Inc, visit veteransinc.org. To learn more about Project New Hope, visit projectnewhopema.org.