Dealing with the nation’s veterans – both those who have served since 9/11, and the older ones who came before – has always been a challenge. That’s what makes the approach being championed by Soldier On in Massachusetts interesting.
It’s a veterans’ outreach nonprofit in the western part of the state that believes that only by letting vets earn a stake in their own home can they begin to climb from the depths many find themselves in after waging the nation’s wars. And it’s growing: the Department of Veterans Affairs gave Soldier On nearly $3 million last month to help fight veteran homelessness in New Jersey and New York.
“The fight doesn’t end when they get home,” declares Jack Downing, Soldier On’s voluble president, reciting his agency’s motto. But the welcome that Soldier On offers addicted, convicted or homeless vets – some are all three – is total. “You can’t fail here,” Downing says. “There are no rules here more important than the person.”
Battleland toured Soldier On’s Gordon Mansfield Veterans Community in Pittsfield, Mass., last week with Downing. The neat community of 39 small apartments, clustered around a central courtyard, is named for a former VA deputy secretary who hails from Pittsfield, and who was severely wounded as a company commander in Vietnam. It’s an approach Downing wants to spread around the country.
“Soldier On’s development and growth in western Massachusetts has developed a model of outreach and services for underserved veterans that is now being recognized as a model for other states,” Downing says. “We look forward to continue the growth and development of this model.” Veterans can gain partial ownership of one of the units for $2,500 down and $580 a month.
At Soldier On, in both the permanent and transitional housing (different buildings for each gender), panels made up of residents – vets – are the ones who set the rules, counsel the vets and encourage, cajole and nag newcomers to shape up. They speak highly of the organization and housing that have given them hope and restored their sense of self-respect; one likens it to “Disneyland.”
Downing – perhaps because he comes from the world of helping the addicted and homeless, rather than the military – isn’t shy about declaring where he believes the system is failing. “We’re trying to challenge the whole VA system,” he says, while noting that more than 85% of his outfit’s funding comes from the VA.
Last month, he called VA Secretary – a former Army general, chief of staff and wounded veteran – Eric Shinseki on the carpet for his remarks at the 4th annual Pentagon-VA suicide prevention conference. “Veterans who commit suicide, perhaps as many as two out of three, are not enrolled in the VA health care system,” Shinseki said. “So as good as we think our programs are — we don’t even get a shot at these veterans.”
Downing suggests Shinseki has it backwards. “The model that the veteran needs to find the VA, rather than the VA needs to find veterans, is at the center of what is wrong with the VA today,” Downing said. “We cannot continue letting young people die and say ‘too bad they didn’t come for help.’ It is our duty to seek out the men and women who were willing to die for us.”