Comments Off on Pittsfield Zoning Board gives green light to veteran permanent housing project
By Amanda Drane , The Berkshire Eagle
PITTSFIELD — In the coming year the city will see new housing for female veterans and another Verizon cell tower after the Zoning Board of Appeals approved special permits for the projects on Wednesday.
Soldier On’s housing project will consist of a two-story, 8,850-square-foot building at 402 West Housatonic St. with units that are 450 to 490 square feet each. The agency also runs a 16-unit transitional housing program for female veterans in Leeds, and the Pittsfield building will serve as an option for those women when they are ready to move on to more permanent housing. The residents will own shares in the building, intended for families with an income of less than $26,000 a year.
Construction on the housing project will begin in about a year at the earliest.
Alvin Buckley, employment specialist for the Soldier On organization, is served in the Marines and is an Iraq war veteran. Soldier On helped Buckley get his life on the right track after returning from combat. (Photo: Sarah Warnock/Clarion Ledger)
Alvin Buckley chose to become homeless.
He chose to after realizing what nine months at war in Iraq had done to him.
He chose to after realizing “I could not be around my child the way I was,” he says. “My decision.”
So for months in 2008, he lived in the woods at Lefleur’s Bluff State Park in Jackson.
One night Buckley phoned the mother of his child. They talked for a few minutes. His hands trembled, but he kept his words smooth and steady.
Then he heard the jibber jabber in the background of his infant daughter. To him, it was the clearest voice he had heard in a long time.
He talked a couple of minutes longer, hung up the phone and put away the 9mm pistol that he had loaded with the intention of ending his pain.
He has found his calling
The gentleman at the conference table rises to shake hands. He is soft spoken and well dressed: Dark suit, white shirt, dark tie.
He is the employment specialist with the Jackson-based office of Soldier On, a nonprofit in five states that helps veterans who are homeless, unemployed, incarcerated or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In his job, he has met dozens of Alvin Buckleys.
“When I step back and look at what we’re doing with Soldier On … the fact is, we care deeply about veterans’ well being,” the man says. “They sacrificed. Many put their lives on the line. When they come back from war, some of them tend to shut down. Their mental well-being is the biggest thing. It’s hard for them to say, ‘Hey, I need help with this.’
“That’s where we come in. And that’s what I love about my job every single day.”
Alvin Buckley, 33, smiles as he speaks those words. He has found his calling — and himself.
Don’t leave anyone behind
Soldier On, founded in 1994 and funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is focused on “changing the end of the story,” says Hayes Dent, the organization’s senior vice president and a Yazoo City resident.
Dent is a veteran of the first Gulf War and recipient of the Bronze Star, awarded for heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.
“How many times have we heard the story about the veteran who couldn’t adjust after making it back home?” Dent says. “We want to help them adjust and get their lives back. For me personally, it’s about not leaving anybody behind.
“The thing about the veteran community is that many of us are living good lives … lives that most people would consider ‘normal.’ My dad is a Vietnam vet, and he later had a great career as a banker. He’s still active in community affairs. But when you’re in the military and deployed, you don’t sit around talking about who’s going home to a good life and who’s going to struggle.”
The statistics are sobering.
Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. Sixty-five percent of those are age 50 and older. More than half of the 22 are usually not under the care of VA health professionals.
Approximately 220,000 veterans reside in Mississippi. Soldier On is in the process of building 60 permanent housing units in Jackson for homeless veterans. Another facility is in the works on the Gulf Coast.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections has created a separate unit at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County where veterans who are nearing release from any state-supervised facility are offered life skills training by Soldier On staff members to help them transition back into society.
Charles Dwyar of Retrieving Freedom works with three of eight incarcerated U.S. military veterans at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl who train service dogs for disabled veterans in a program sponsored by Soldier On. (Photo: B.R. Hawkins/For Clarion Ledger)
Carlos McGee, 47, is one of that program’s success stories. He served 10 years for drug convictions in Forrest County. He now works at Ingall’s Shipbuilding in Pascagoula as a joiner.
“My life is awesome,” he says. “I have a car and a truck. I’ve moved from an apartment to a house. I like my job. I have a girlfriend. I have a little bulldog named Lady.
“And I’ll admit to you right now that until Soldier On came along I had no plan for when I got out, had no idea how I was going to make a living.”
McGee grew up near Hattiesburg, graduated from North Forrest High School in 1987 and joined the Marines a year later. He served in Japan, Korea and Okinawa as a nuclear biological chemical defense specialist.
“I liked the job because not everyone could do it,” he says.
He stayed in four years and eventually returned to Mississippi in the mid-1990s. “I worked a few jobs, had a couple of kids along the way, went to school at (the University of Southern Mississippi) but didn’t graduate. Then I got into trouble and spent nine-and-a-half years basically in a cage.
“It was like I was sealed up in a vacuum. My emotional development, my social skills all deteriorated. I thought I was fine. But being behind those bars takes something out of you that a lot of times you aren’t able to get back.”
When he was introduced to the Soldier On program a few months before his release “I wanted no part of it, “he says.
“I was so into my own shell, I just wanted to be left alone,” he says. “And I sure didn’t want the rigid structure of attending classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. I told them that. I told them, “I’d rather be sleeping.’ ”
But the more he went to class, the more he saw the benefits.
“I could tell the people teaching these classes really cared. They were putting their hearts and souls into helping us,” McGee says. “It finally got to the point where I not only wanted to succeed for me, I wanted to do it for them, too.”
He learned basic things like how to balance a checkbook, maintain a budget, pay your bills on time. He studied more complex issues such as anger management and conflict resolutions.
“Once I got out, they helped me with living arrangements, clothing, transportation.
“If that program hadn’t come along … my life would’ve been ugly,” McGee says. “I was headed for destruction because I had no dreams or aspirations. I thank God for the people from Soldier On.
So, too, does Alvin Buckley.
He was raised in a strict household, the youngest of five children and the only boy.
“My dad and me, we were outnumbered on everything,” he says with a laugh.
Buckley graduated from Lawrence County High School in 2002. He studied architectural drafting and carpentry at Hinds Community College and Jackson State.
He joined the Marines in 2004.
“It had been on my mind since 9/11,” he says.
Buckley recalls the day he left for boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina.
“When I first got to the (Jackson) airport, they were explaining that we were going to fly to Charlotte and that we would be given money to eat at a restaurant there,” he says. “That sounded good. But when we got to the airport, these drill instructors showed up and, man, they went to yelling and yelling and yelling.”
Each recruit was given one phone call home.
“We were supposed to say only what was written on the wall in front of us,” Buckley says. “You know, ‘I made it here fine. Everything is OK.’
“But I decided to call my cousin’s house, instead. He was about to join, too. When his parents answered, I yelled out, ‘Tell Kentrell not to do it! Don’t join!’ The instructors ran over and hung up the phone and went to yelling again. They weren’t real happy with me. And Kentrell joined anyway. We even wound up in the same platoon.”
Miracle he was alive
Buckley trained in infantry and artillery. He was sent to Iraq in 2006.
“When we touched down there, everybody was anxious,” he recalls. “We were in this truck on the way to our base and gunshots started hitting the truck. They told us to get down and stay down, that we had Marines out there to take care of it.”
Buckley performed reconnaissance for a security convoy. A few weeks into his deployment, a vehicle in their nighttime convoy ran over a crudely made bomb. When Buckley’s sergeant got out of the vehicle, Buckley scrambled to cover him.
“All of a sudden the lights went out and I’m looking for movement through my night goggles,” he says. “I saw a guy running at full speed, but I couldn’t tell what he was running to. I watched him and saw a flash. That’s when everything went blank.”
When Buckley came to, he says his body “felt like it was on fire … and I’m still not sure from what.”
The medics kept telling him it was a miracle he was alive, that he “should have been eaten up by shrapnel.”
That was Buckley’s closest brush with death. He returned to the U.S. in February 2007 and immediately joined a reserve unit that was training to go to Iraq.
“I couldn’t wait to go back,” he says.
‘I don’t remember any of this’
A few weeks after coming home, he was riding with his daughter and her mother. He spotted a plastic grocery sack in the road and he pulled the car over. He got out and tried to stop traffic from both directions.
“In Iraq, if you saw a plastic garbage bag — or anything in the road — you could almost bet there was a bomb in it,” Buckley says. “And that was the only way I knew how to react — stop traffic, take care of the bomb.”
The police came, calmed Buckley down and eventually let him head home.
A fellow Marine he met at a job fair convinced Buckley to seek counseling at the VA hospital.
“We’re sitting there and all of a sudden my daughter’s mother starts telling the counselor all this stuff I’ve been doing. She said I would wake up in the middle of the night and maybe grab her. She said one night I woke up, got out of bed, went outside for 45 minutes, then came back to bed. I was making sure our home was secure.
“One night she found me under the bed. And I don’t remember any of this stuff she’s telling him. I thought she was picking on me.”
That’s when Buckley headed to the woods of LeFleur’s Bluff. He drank a lot. The alcohol helped numb his constant migraines. He showered at a gym where he was a member.
“If you saw me, you’d never think anything was wrong,” Buckley says. “But I didn’t understand PTSD.”
He enrolled in cosmetology school.
“Not because I wanted to learn how to cut hair,” he says. “But remember, I grew up in a household with five females. I was drawn to that. I felt safe.”
He became a licensed cosmetologist, massage therapist and barber. “In 2010, I took all three of those before my military review board, all in an effort to try and persuade them that I was OK, hoping they would let me go back to Iraq,” he says.
The board denied his request. He left the reserve unit in 2011, still battling PTSD.
Buckley opened a day spa. The building cost him $1,900 a month in rent. He had moved into an apartment, which was $900 a month.
“Every penny I made was going toward rent,” he says. “I was in tough shape financially.”
He again phoned the Marine from the job fair. They met. Buckley opened up about his problems. The Marine informed Buckley about Soldier On.
“I was interested because I was hoping to get one month’s rent taken care of,” he says. “Instead, they paid for three months. And I guess that changed my entire perception of the program.”
He began going to therapy and taking the life skill classes.
“Soldier On changed everything,” says Buckley, who is single and has three children. “I’m alive and I’m doing great. My kids keep me busy with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts. But I love it.”
‘I can make a difference’
About a year ago, a case manager at Soldier On reached out to Buckley with a job offer that involved driving fellow veterans to and from doctor appointments.
That led to his present position, helping veterans apply for jobs.
“I have to tell you this story,” Buckley says near the end of a two-and-a-half hour interview. “I drove one of our veterans down to Ingalls to apply for a position. He had to take a test, which should’ve lasted a couple of hours. Well, he was out in 30 minutes.
He told me, ‘This just isn’t going to work out for me. I’m ready to go home,’ ” Buckley says. “The person who had run the session was one of Ingalls’ main recruiters.
“I told him, ‘I want you to go back in there and thank them for their time.’ I knew it was a long shot that he would run into the guy again, but I wanted this veteran to be seen apart from everyone else.”
Buckley flashes a huge smile.
“They hired him,” he says. “They … hired … him. And that’s when I realized that even though I went through some rough patches, I can make a difference in other veterans’ lives. And I intend to do that for as long as they will let me.
The Soldier On Incarcerated Veterans program at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl celebrated Veterans Day. Left to right are, Drexel Brown, U.S. Army; Sgt. Tracey Howell, MDOC Correctional Officer; Daniel Robinson, U.S. Navy; Alvin Buckley, U.S. Marine and Soldier On Employment Specialist; B.R. Hawkins, Soldier On Director, Veterans employment; Deputy Warden Vivian Frazer, MDOC Program Supervisor; Bruce Boyd, U.S. Marines; and Leon Edwards, U.S. Navy Reserves. (Photo: Sarah Warnock/Clarion Ledger )
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — If Setti Warren is elected governor, he wants a veteran sitting in his cabinet.
The Newton Democrat has put forth a proposal to pull the veterans services secretary job out from under Health and Human Services and provide veterans with their own seat at the table.
“I believe we need to build on the success and create a veterans affairs secretary and military families at the full cabinet level. This cabinet secretary will report directly to the governor and be integrated into all of the decisions being made,” Warren said on Thursday when he stopped in at Soldier On.
The plan would be to create a secretary for veterans and military families. The Newton mayor said his veteran services officer answers directly to him and it has worked out well. He said it has increased accountability and allows veterans to have input on decisions that are often made without them.
“I believe it knocks down some silos in government,” Warren said. “Massachusetts is a leader in the country in veterans issues and I want to build on those strengths.”
Soldier On President Jack Downing was particularly intrigued by it because when it comes to decisions about transportation or other issues, ways to smooth out providing services for veterans aren’t thought about until it is too late.
Three years ago, Soldier On received a $2 million transportation grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The non-profit had partnered with the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority to provide rides for veterans to such things as doctors appointments.
However, Soldier On can’t expand that to other parts of the state. It has to work with each regional transit authority on a new program.
“We have to go region by region because there is nobody sitting at the table with the governor saying, hey governor we have this transportation bill why can’t we tie into all these FTA grants?” Downing said.
He added, “It is not that people don’t want to do it, we just weren’t at the front of the planning.” He hopes that the process of providing transportation for veterans can be a whole lot smoother.
When it comes to family services, Downing said often families can get lost in the programs. Somebody overseeing that at a higher level can help craft policies that work better for providing those services.
“They fall through cracks in terms of income for social welfare programs. They have special needs that have to be met and it is very difficult to get there,” Downing said.
Warren sees the new secretary position as one to weigh in on all of those decisions. Whether it be transportation or education or housing, Warren wants more input from the veterans.
“This will build on the success we have had here in Massachusetts,” Warren said.
The candidate has a particular interest in veterans affairs because he is the third generation in his family to serve. He enlisted in the Navy Reserve after the World Trade Center attack and served nine years. In 2007, he was deployed to Iraq.
“My dad was a veteran. I’m an Iraq War veteran. My daughter was born during my deployment. I know a lot of service members that faced challenges,” Warren said.
He emphasized, however, that Massachusetts is providing excellent services for veterans now. He just wants to enhance that even further.
“I was charged with larceny and burglary,” says Longolucco. He was in the reserves for the Army, and then after went into law enforcement.
“I was arrested for possession of firearms,” says Marquis. “So that got me forty months in jail.” He is ex-military, 169th 11th Bravo, serving 5 years at Fort Benning Georgia.
The Cybulski Reintegration Unit in Enfield has three different groups targeted at helping inmates for life after prison. One group is for inmates nearing their release date, the second is for DUI offenders, and the third is specific for veterans like Longolucoo and Marquis.
“You have to apply. We do interviews — we look at histories,” says the John Tarascio, Warden of the Willard Cybulski Correction Institution, “There’s a variety of different factors that go into making sure that the inmate going into the unit is going to at least attempt to be successful.”
Tarascio believes in order to be successful, the inmates need to have a structured routine.
“Meaningful activity is very important in a correctional environment because it takes away idleness. When inmates are productive they start to feel good about themselves,” says Tarascio. “We want to make sure that we are ultimately making a commitment to reduce recidivism.”
The reintegration unit opened in 2015, and has been evolving over the past couple of years. Four months ago, Soldier On, a non-profit group for veterans was introduced into the program.
“They come every day Monday through Friday. They are here doing a variety of programming for the veteran population,” says Tarascio, “It ranges from life skills, addiction skills, transitional services, military benefits, and housing. They do a lot of trauma based, cognitive behavior treatment programs — stuff that is specifically for veterans.”
Alexis Truslow , the Mental Health Clinician for Soldier On, says the work she has done with the veteran inmates has been some of the most rewarding work she has done in her career.
“These folks have been willing to give their lives for our country,” says Truslow. “I think that they deserve the best that we can offer so they can get their life back on track.”
Longolucco is serving his first prison sentence, and he says this program has changed his life.
“Soldier On… I can’t say enough about the program — the program is phenomenal,” he says, “I am happy to share my time with other vets, and share our stories.”
For Marquis, this is his sixth time behind bars, but he says this will also be his last.
“I think if more of us were to jump into an opportunity of a program like this, I think there would be less recidivism,” says Marquis, “It’s the tools that we are missing that DOC and the administration has been grateful enough to give to us. Now we have something that we can utilize and try to rebuild our lives as we go back out.”
Marquis and Longolucco are set to be released within the next five years. They say they are determined to change the direction of their life with the new tools they have picked up in their time in the Cybulski Reintegration Unit.
“A lot of us face PTSD, and don’t know how to resolve the issues or have anybody to speak to about it,” says Marquis. “We have a comradery going on now and it is really good to know that you can go to another fellow serviceman and talk to him about what’s bothering you.”
Being incarcerated can be mentally grueling and Warden Tarascio says that also being a veteran adds an extra degree of difficulty.
“I think it is a difficult scenario because they are a veteran, and they served this country, they fight struggles that other inmates don’t,” says Tarascio.
That is why groups like Soldier On, are committed to trying to help incarcerated veterans.
“They come in free of charge to us and they’re here every day,” says Tarascio. “They have their psychiatrist, psychologist, program counselors, and military experts. I mean, it’s a well run organization that provides a myriad of opportunities for services that normally I don’t have the resources to commit. I don’t have the expertise.”
The inmates in the Cybulski Reintegration Unit spend roughly ten hours a day working to change who they were when they first came to prison, knowing full well that type of change takes hard work and dedication.
“I am not afraid to talk discuss anything that bothers me anymore, I am definitely owning up to what I have done wrong in the past,” says Marquis. “With a little time and effort everything is fixable.”
Tarascio says he hopes his inmates will continue to take advantage of the opportunities they are provided with, as he tries to serve those, who once served this country.
“If we can make them better than when they came in, then they have a chance at being a successful productive member of society. That is the goal,” says Tarascio. “We want them not to come back to our system.”
This week on22News InFocus we’ll be talking about the unique challenges faced by military families, active duty personnel and veterans.
Even when we are not at war, they deal with stresses such as frequent moves or the absence of a spouse or parent. Deployment to a war zone creates additional issues for a family to handle. Our panel of guests represent programs that provide services and resource to support families, active personnel, and veterans.
You can watch 22News InFocus this Sunday at noon, LIVE on the air or streaming on your mobile device using the 22News app. And if you miss it, you’ll find it on our website at WWLP.com.
Below are links and contact information from our guests. Use them to learn more about support services for military families, active military, and veterans, or to find out how to make donations or volunteer.
JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) – Mississippi has an estimated 220,000 veterans in the state, many of them are homeless.
A national organization, with funding from the Veteran’s Administration, is working to identify and find permanent homes for Mississippi’s homeless population.
A stretch of abandoned structures on Livingston Road could soon be transformed into permanent housing for homeless veterans.
That’s the plan of Soldier On, a nonprofit organization funded by the VA.
It is headquartered in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and began offering transitional housing and support services to veterans in 1994.
The program is currently in six states.
The Veterans Administration’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grant is providing $2 million in Mississippi for housing.
Soldier On is coordinating efforts to build 60 permanent housing units for homeless vets on eight acres across from the Jackson Medical Mall.
“We’re working with a site that is currently owned by the Jackson Public Schools,” said Soldier On Senior Vice President Hayes Dent. “They have been very cooperative with working with us, as has the medical Mall foundation and we hope to build our permanent housing in that area.”
“I’ve seen veterans that are staying under bridges, staying in parks,” said Soldier On Employment Specialist Alvin Buckley.
Just over three years ago, the Marine Corps vet was on the verge of being homeless, but today, Buckley works with Soldier On’s finding jobs for vets.
The organization has worked with 1,200 homeless veterans in the state.
“I was needing help with my rent. I was kinda behind,” said Buckley. “A friend of mine told me about the program, and I reached out to them. A case manager came out and visited me and they helped me out.”
Soldier On also works with incarcerated veterans at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. The program offers 30 hours of weekly instruction on coping strategies, conflict resolution, substance abuse and more.
The Labor Department is providing $200,000 for that program.
If you are a veteran needing help with housing, health care or substance abuse, call Soldier On at 1-800-406-8449.
BY DESARE FRAZIE. A national organization focused on helping Mississippi homeless veterans is announcing new plans, including building housing in Jackson.
Beth Borsage is a case manager with Soldier On, a non-profit based out of Massachusetts. Her territory is the Gulfcoast. She doesn’t work out of an office. Instead she gets her assignments in daily emails.
“The message will get to us to call this person and make an appointment and go to where they are and help them wherever they’re at. If they’re living by the railroad tracks or living in an apartment they’re about to loose. We go there,” said Borage.
Borsage says they’ll pay the deposit and rent for an apartment and help vets get the benefits they’re entitled to. John Downing is with Soldier On. He says the non-profit is the largest provider of supportive services for veterans in the country. Downing says they’ve been in Mississippi five years and have helped more than 4,000 veterans. He says they have partnerships and receive grants from agencies like the Veteran’s Administration. Downing says they want Mississippians to lead the effort now.
“We extracted the Massachusetts experts out, put in the local experts and now this should grow to be the face of Mississippi,” said Downing.
Mississippi Veteran Hayes Dent heads the state’s operation. He’s says they’re adding more partners and in talks to develop a 60 unit permanent housing community in Jackson by 2019.
“If you look at our housing, the housing that we’ve built all over the country. It’s the kind of housing you’d want to live in. Nothing that we build at Soldier On anyone would shamed of living in,” said Dent.
Among the other services offered Hayes says are peer counseling and a program for veterans in prison at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility.