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Success Story: Willie Ledbetter

Each month Soldier On highlights a formerly homeless veterans success story.


The low point is easy to remember for Willie Ledbetter.

“Sitting in a graveyard in Hartford, injecting with heroin – that was my rock bottom,” Willie recalls. It was the mid-1990s, and the U.S. Army infantry veteran was homeless and strung out. “A tombstone waiting for the exact date of death,” as he puts it.

Fast forward to the present, where a rejuvenated and reborn Willie Ledbetter serves as Outreach Coordinator for Soldier On, visiting prisons, jails, shelters and boarding houses in an effort to bring homeless veterans to a more appropriate place to begin recovery. An ex-convict himself, who served three long jail sentences for drug-related crimes following his military discharge in 1976, he carries substantial street credibility when dealing with troubled homeless veterans.

“Guys relate to me because I’ve been to jail and I’m a product of the streets,” Willie said.

Willie grew up in Hartford, with dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot or astronaut. Instead, he dropped out of 9th grade on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated.

“I realized later that went directly against Dr. King’s teachings,” Willie said. “I dropped out instead of staying in school and furthering my education.”

Willie soon hooked up with the wrong crowd and spent some time in juvenile detention. Recognizing what might lie ahead on the streets, he joined the National Guard in 1972, and two years later enlisted in the Army. He was stationed in Germany, trained as a gunner. It was during this time that he started smoking heroin. He had earlier dabbled with alcohol and marijuana, but after his discharge from the military, his addiction led to street hustles, robbery, drug deals and the three jail terms over the next 19 years. He has a daughter, Robin, but was barely there for the early years of her life. The product of addicted parents, Robin was involved in the murder of a Hartford cab driver when she was 14 and is now 15 years into a 50-year state prison sentence.

In 1995, Willie was on a two-year run of street hustling to support his drug habit, dodging arrest despite committing crimes including larceny and shoplifting. It was then that he hooked up with a counselor who helped place him in a 21-day in-patient substance abuse treatment program at the VA Medical Center in Leeds. When the 21 days were up, he was offered a bed at Soldier On, located on the VA Leeds campus, plus help finding work. He was a materials handler at a local plastics company, worked as a welder and nursing assistant, and kept up with his 12-Step Program. He has been sober since 1995, is a born-again Christian and is unapologetic about his passion for playing chess. The consummate team player at Soldier On, Willie has responded to the agency’s needs by serving in a number of capacities, including general manager.

Soldier On, he said, “granted me an opportunity in life. I was fortunate that I was a veteran. Because of my history, I didn’t believe I’d be given an opportunity like the one Soldier On gave me. Soldier On doesn’t judge your past. They look at your future and your goals and work with you to become a productive member of society again.”

Willie recognizes the role of spirituality in his own turnaround, and emphasizes that element when speaking to fellow veterans.

“It’s not just about going to meetings and getting  yourself a sponsor,” Willie said. “You’ve got to get yourself a spiritual foundation. You give it your all to get that drug, so you’ve got to have that same drive to get your faith, and that’s what keeps you sober.”

Now, as a way of giving back to the community, Willie also speaks with at-risk students about his own background, including its terrible effects on his daughter’s life. For Soldier On, he seeks out at-risk veterans in the courts and jails, makes the rounds of homeless shelters, and brings the homeless veterans to Leeds if they are sober and willing.

“He’s a man who believes in redemption. He’s living proof,” a Springfield newspaper columnist once wrote of Willie.

“This program can change your life,” Willie says.


Moving On, Thanks to "Soldier On"

Former Soldier On resident Mark Coleman is featured in the Department of Labor’s newsletter:

Moving On, Thanks to ‘Soldier On’

Physical and emotional issues caused Army veteran Mark Coleman to separate from his family and then lose his job. But Coleman turned his life around, thanks to Soldier On, a departmental grantee in Massachusetts, which offers housing, meals, recovery treatment, career counseling and job placement to veterans. Coleman said the program provides “the environment to decide what you want to do with your life, and the tools and resources to succeed.” Soldier On helped Coleman get a temporary shipping job with a local candle maker. This work experience led to his landing a full-time job with benefits at a large firearms manufacturer. Now that his life has changed for the better, Coleman said he eventually hopes to attend college and become a substance abuse counselor to “allow me to help others.”

To view the newsletter visit .


TIME Magazine Features Soldier On in "Battleland" Blog

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 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.”

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Help for homeless veterans – "Soldier On" recieves $400K grant

LEEDS, Mass. (WWLP) – There’s some much needed relief for homeless veterans in Western Massachusetts trying to make their way back into the workforce. One non-profit organization in Leeds is helping our heroes get hired. 

Soldier On’s president John Downing says the homeless veteran population is at risk of being permanently unemployed. Downing told 22News close to 60% of homeless veterans are unemployed and more than a quarter of returning vets have no job.

Soldier On helps homeless veterans in western Massachusetts with housing, health care, and employment. On Monday the Department of Labor awarded a $400,000 grant to Soldier On. Downing says the money comes at a critical time.

Click here to read the rest of this story at


"Home Is Where the Trouble Is"

Here is an interesting editorial by Lawrence Downes in the New York Times about the challenges faced by returning veterans and the need for Congress to support VA Secretary Shinseki’s efforts to end homelessness.

Soldier On is keenly aware of the need to develop a readjustment and aftercare plan for returning veterans, including salary and benefits to ease their transition to civilian life. This change needs to begin with the Department of Defense, however peer-to-peer interaction is an excellent way for veterans to communicate and develop a community of trust, support, and integrity.

At Soldier On, we believe that safe, affordable, sustainable housing, coupled with the services veterans require, is the best way to care for our veterans and their families.

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