Soldier On is making its move to find property in Daytona Beach to build homes for the homeless.

A Massachusetts-based nonprofit is looking at building a complex of permanent homes for the homeless in Daytona Beach.
By Eileen Zaffiro-Kean

DAYTONA BEACH – When local leaders started sparring over whether to build a new homeless shelter, a four-year tug of war broke out between emergency shelter advocates and permanent housing supporters.

Now it looks like both sides are going to get what they want. Construction is underway on the 100-bed First Step Shelter slated to open next year. And a Massachusetts-based nonprofit called Soldier On is making its move to find property in Daytona Beach to build homes for the homeless.

Soldier On’s plan is to construct apartments or town home-style units the once-homeless residents could stay in as long as they wanted. They could even become partial owners.

Helping homeless people cobble together enough money from Social Security benefits, Veterans Administration assistance, federal housing vouchers and meager wages from part-time jobs to get a roof over their heads isn’t new in Volusia County. But the Soldier On project would mark the first time in county history that a large permanent housing complex was built exclusively for people coming off the streets.

When local homeless people move into places of their own now, they’re connected with whatever housing works and they’re scattered around the area, sometimes shunned by neighbors who find out about their past. The Soldier On vision is for a cohesive village of formerly homeless people who understand and help one another, and have quick access to a plethora of support services.

“They have probably the best reputation in the country for doing these projects,” said Mayor Derrick Henry, who serves as president of the First Step Shelter Board. “We see the long-term housing as a second step. I recognize the problem we’re having with affordable housing.”

Nothing is definite yet, but Soldier On officials have their eye on a 17-acre property on George Engram Boulevard a short distance east of Nova Road. The site across from Bonner Elementary School, vacant since the public housing on it was demolished around 2006, is owned by the Daytona Beach Housing Authority.

“They fell in love with it because it’s a huge piece of property to do everything we envisioned,” said L. Ronald Durham, the city’s Community Relations Manager, who has been heavily involved in local efforts to help the homeless. “We have a bold vision for the site if we can acquire it.”

If Soldier On stays focused on that property just east of the Midtown Cultural and Educational Center, the Housing Authority’s board will ultimately decide whether to sell the land. Durham expects to give a presentation on the Soldier On proposal to the Housing Authority board at their next meeting.

Since the Daytona Beach Housing Authority is in the process of hiring a new executive director, the board might wait for the new agency head to take the helm before making a decision. Henry said board members he’s spoken to “seem supportive of the project,” and he noted that the Housing Authority might be able to provide housing vouchers for residents of the new complex.

If things fall into place, there could be new buildings on the site with space for 50-100 people within the next few years. There could even be a convenience store so the new residents, many who probably wouldn’t have cars, would have easy access to basic necessities.

If the George Engram Boulevard property doesn’t work out, Soldier On officials say they’ve checked out other sites on their visits to Daytona Beach that could work.

Local leaders who’ve seen Soldier On’s residential properties say they’re well-kept and attractive, and look like any other quality apartment buildings or town homes.

“This does not look like anything you’d envision for people who were once homeless,” Durham said. “It’ll look like part of the community.”

‘The timing is perfect’

Soldier On has helped more than 10,000 veterans over the past 25 years with everything from securing Veterans Administration benefits to finding jobs, and the agency bills itself as the largest provider of supportive services for veteran families in the United States.

Up to now Soldier On has exclusively helped veterans, but the Daytona Beach property would welcome both former soldiers and non-soldiers, men and women. It would be for single adults, not families.

At least to start, residents of the new housing would come mainly from First Step Shelter, which will also be for adults. Bruce Buckley, Soldier On’s president and CEO, said his agency would consider homeless people who don’t go to First Step, but priority will be given to those who go to that shelter, which is expected to open in about a year on a site near the Volusia County Branch Jail.

On May 30, the First Step Shelter Board entered into a memorandum of understanding with Soldier On. The plan is for shelter residents who do what’s needed to get their lives back on track to advance from that emergency housing to permanent homes in the Soldier On village.

“First Step is 100 percent behind it,” Henry said. “We’ll help them help us.”

But Soldier On isn’t asking the First Step board for any financial help.

“I like that they didn’t ask us for anything other than cooperation,” said First Step Board member Dwight Selby, an Ormond Beach city commissioner. “I’m excited about it. We’ve got to be able to send people somewhere. The timing is perfect.”

Fellow First Step board member Bill Hall, South Daytona’s mayor, also likes the plan.

“I don’t think it can be a negative in any way,” Hall said.

But some people who live and work near George Engram Boulevard are already worrying.

“All these things need to be out west,” said Johnnie Ponder, a longtime resident of the Midtown neighborhood a few blocks south of George Engram Boulevard. “Shelters, agencies, they can have them. Why do they need to come here?”

Buckley said his organization has to choose sites with good access to businesses, services and transportation, but the nonprofit also tries to “make joint decisions with a community.”

“We try not to go anywhere we’re pushing our way into an area,” he said.

Buckley said he’ll be back in Daytona Beach in a few weeks looking at sites.

The center of the city that Ponder referred to has had Daytona Beach’s largest concentration of homeless assistance agencies for more than a decade. Attempts over the past few years to increase that concentration and locate a homeless shelter in the city’s historic core were met with powerful opposition in four different locations.

But with homeless people and aggressive panhandlers more painfully visible than ever in the city’s center and beachside, many business owners and residents are running out of patience for the shelter and new housing to go up. Two local business owners told city commissioners at their meeting last week that the homeless have become more than just an avoidable annoyance.

Jennifer Finno Ellis, who lives downtown and runs a Main Street tattoo parlor, told city commissioners she recently saw two panhandlers in a turf fight on the corner of Ridgewood Avenue and International Speedway Boulevard. She stepped in to try to help the older panhandler, and said she wound up being attacked by the younger vagrant. She was left with multiple injuries and she’s hobbling around on crutches now.

More about Soldier On

Soldier On provides homeless veterans — as well as those at risk of becoming homeless — with personalized case management, legal help, financial assistance, transportation, basic medical and dental care, food, mental health counseling, treatment for addictions and life skills training. The agency also helps with everything from emergency shelter to transitional housing to permanent housing.

All residents in Soldier On permanent housing are required to complete a life skills program that takes 15 hours and covers financial literacy, legal issues, rules and regulations, wellness and basic life skills. There are even Soldier On reintegration programs in jails and prisons.

“There’s so many layers to addressing homelessness,” Henry said.

Soldier On does not ban alcoholics and drug addicts from its properties, but it doesn’t allow illegal drug use in its homes and relapses are met with intervention efforts.

“Each individual develops a personalized plan for their own healing and recovery in a trauma-free environment,” Durham said. “There will be ongoing case management to make sure they’re a success and not a failure. These will be people who show quite a bit of promise.”

For its first 16 years, Soldier On only offered veteran services. Then in 2010 the agency based in Pittsfield, Mass., branched out and started providing permanent housing, some newly built and some in rehabbed schools.

The nonprofit owns and operates 177 affordable housing units in four Massachusetts cities. The organization says it’s expanding its housing now into New York, New Jersey, Mississippi and Florida.

In Volusia County, other groups have proposed more elaborate versions of what Soldier On hopes to do in Daytona Beach, including one plan for a large homeless village west of Interstate 95 and another proposal for a sprawling homeless community just west of New Smyrna Beach. But those ideas never progressed beyond words and drawings on paper.

Soldier On’s recipe for success has included a mix of tax credits, federal grants and loans to get its properties built.

The agency spent $7 million on its first housing complex, which is located in Pittsfield, and opened seven years ago. The average unit size is 525 square feet. Rent is $526 for a studio apartment and $582 for a one-bedroom home.

The 39 veterans who live there purchased a share in the limited-equity housing cooperative. The cooperatives can provide residents with some extra money when there’s a surplus, and they “get a sense of membership in a community,” Buckley said. “They’re not transient anymore.”

The nonprofit says the Pittsfield property has a resident retention rate of more than 90 percent, and an occupancy rate of nearly 100 percent.

Soldier On has three additional housing complexes in Massachusetts that opened in 2016 and 2017. It also has 19 permanent housing units scattered around Pittsfield, a western Massachusetts city of about 45,000.

Its 44-unit property in Leeds, Mass., cost $10 million to build and furnish, and charges $883 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. A renovated elementary school in Chicopee, Mass., cost $9.8 million to turn into a 43-unit residence that also charges $883 monthly for a one-bedroom unit.

Rent for the fully furnished units includes utilities, high-speed Internet access and basic cable. The units come with personal computers and 32-inch monitors that can also be used for watching TV, video conferencing for group counseling on everything from addictions to weight loss, and using Skype to connect with case managers and healthcare professionals. There are individually designed home screens with access to banking, VA benefits, medical services and prescription support.

Two Massachusetts officials said they’ve heard only good things about Soldier On properties.

“I’m not aware of any issues,” said Peter Marchetti, president of the Pittsfield City Council. “From touring the facilities, it seems good to me.”

Jerry Roy, an at-large member of the Chicopee City Council, said “it’s a good program.”

The Daytona Beach connection

Pete Gamble, a former executive director of the Daytona Beach Housing Authority, was the one who connected Daytona Beach and Soldier On. Three years ago, Gamble and the Housing Authority wanted to create a veterans village in Daytona Beach, so they went to Massachusetts to tour the Soldier On homes.

“We were very impressed, so we tried to do the same thing here,” said Gamble, who was celebrated during his tenure for getting several new Daytona Beach Housing Authority properties built.

Three sites in Daytona Beach were chosen as contenders for the housing. The current property on George Engram Boulevard was considered, as was land behind Campbell Middle School and property near the intersection of Mason Avenue and Bill France Boulevard. The effort failed, though, because “there was a lot of territorialism” among some Daytona Beach nonprofits, he said.

“We couldn’t get the support of the social service providers, and some of the funding depended on them signing a letter of support,” Gamble said.

Then six months ago, with First Step Shelter surging toward reality, Durham contacted Gamble to see if the Soldier On project could be revived. Gamble said he got everyone in touch with one another and then bowed out of the process since he retired from his position at the Housing Authority.

But Gamble still believes in Soldier On.

“They were the finest provider we saw,” he said.

Gamble believes permanent housing is a vital part of keeping people from sliding back into homelessness. He noted that some homeless people need an alternative to Housing Authority apartments since they wouldn’t meet that organization’s standards for criminal records and credit history.

The recently homeless also won’t be able to afford the climbing rents in the Daytona Beach area, and new First Step Shelter Executive Director Mark Geallis is afraid a new wave of homelessness could be coming. The city needs all the affordable housing it can get, Geallis said.

“If you don’t have a place after you stabilize them,” Gamble said, “the chance of recycling back to the street is very high.”


Daytona Beach Homeless Shelter Board Looking at Permanent Housing

Daytona Beach Homeless Shelter Board Looking at Permanent Housing

DAYTONA BEACH — The board that’s overseeing creation of a new homeless shelter hoped to open by the summer of 2019 is starting to plan for what will be done to help people after they leave the refuge for the unsheltered west of Interstate 95.

At their meeting Monday night, members of the First Step Shelter Board had a lengthy conversation via Skype with three top officials of a Massachusetts-based program that provides homes to the homeless.

The organization, Soldier On, is interested in building homes in Daytona Beach, and a large piece of open land on George Engram Boulevard next to the city’s Midtown Cultural & Educational Center has been targeted as a possible site for a new village for those with nowhere to go. The Daytona Beach Housing Authority controls the vacant property, which has been empty for more than 10 years, and would have to become a willing partner for that site to be used.

Soldier On runs its programs on donations and government grants, and isn’t asking the First Step Shelter Board for any money toward the proposed project.

“The gem and the jewel is they’re not asking you for anything,” said L. Ronald Durham, the city’s community relations manager and point person on the shelter.

People who live in Soldier On homes help cover their bills with federal veterans benefits, Social Security assistance programs and income they earn if they work. Despite its name, Soldier On provides permanent housing both for veterans and nonveterans.

Two members of the First Step Shelter Board were not at Monday’s meeting, but the five who were there voted unanimously to pursue an agreement with Soldier On. Once a formal agreement is drafted, it will be reviewed by City Attorney Robert Jagger and eventually voted on by the First Step board.

Soldier On officials, who have visited Daytona Beach several times, can proceed with their effort with or without the First Step Shelter Board’s partnership. But the nonprofit is hoping to join forces with those running First Step so they can house and assist people as they graduate from the 100-bed shelter.

“The key to the success of First Step is the second step,” Durham said.

Soldier On, formed in 1994, also provides preventative support services and reintegration programs in jails and prisons. All residents in Soldier On housing are required to complete life skills programs, and the agency provides case managers, access to healthy meals, transportation and other programs.

Since 2010, Soldier On has developed, constructed and managed several new and rehabbed permanent housing projects. The organization says one of its permanent housing cooperatives in Massachusetts provides homes for 39 homeless veterans and has a retention rate of 90 percent.

Residents can become part owners of their new homes, and they are able to live in them permanently if they choose. Soldier On has about 200 housing units in Massachusetts, and has other veterans communities in development in New York, New Jersey and Mississippi.

Pete Gamble, the former executive director of the Daytona Beach Housing Authority, said he tried several years ago to bring Soldier On housing to Daytona Beach. His vision was to put commercial uses on the first floor of buildings and residences above. But he wasn’t able to get enough support. Gamble said a few of Florida’s representatives in Washington, D.C., were willing to help secure funds, but local service agencies at the time didn’t like the idea of an outside agency coming in.

Now Gamble is taking another shot at the effort. Gamble said he visited a Soldier On housing site in Massachusetts and was “very impressed” with both the buildings and the program’s connections to local government, clergy and the Veterans Administration.

“These guys have done an outstanding job,” said Gamble, who was credited with dramatically improving public housing in Daytona Beach during his long tenure overseeing the Housing Authority. “We have to start working together as partners.”

There was widespread support for the idea among those who spoke at Monday’s meeting at City Hall, including Chet Bell and Mark Geallis, both former heads of nonprofits that help the homeless.

“This is promising,” said Mayor Derrick Henry, chairman of the First Step Shelter Board. “It wouldn’t take us long to get off the ground. It could be a sizeable number of units.”

Henry added later that he’s “excited” and thinks Soldier On housing has “the potential to make a deep impact” in Daytona Beach.

“We have to eventually explore something like this, so the the sooner the better,” the mayor said.

“I’m very much encouraged with this,” echoed Chase Tramont, a First Step Board member and Port Orange City Council member.

Durham gave a brief update on shelter construction at Monday’s meeting. He detailed some utility work being done, and said architectural plans are more than 30 percent complete.

Durham’s update didn’t get into specifics for the new building’s construction. At the end of the Feb. 21 City Commission meeting, City Manager Jim Chisholm gave a presentation on the shelter construction timeline. A document the city put together for that presentation shows site and foundation construction being completed in late October, and vertical construction being complete in a year, on March 20 of next year to be exact.

But the shelter wouldn’t open immediately. The records show the certificate of occupancy being issued on April 30, 2019, furnishings being complete on June 30, 2019, and operations starting at the shelter on July 15, 2019.

The 100-bed shelter is being built on a city-owned 626-acre site near the Volusia County Branch Jail that was recently annexed into city limits.


Associated Press features Incarcerated Veterans Program

U.S. jails increasingly setting aside cellblocks for veterans

By Michael Hill, Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. — The military veterans playing cards in the Albany County jail wear the same orange uniforms as everyone else, with “INMATE” printed down the legs. But their service offers one distinct privilege: a special cellblock where they can work through issues they often share, such as substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s not just us and our thoughts all day,” says 31-year-old Navy veteran James Gibson, who was serving a 60-day criminal contempt sentence. “Everybody who’s been in here has been in the service. So we can all relate to at least that.”

Such “veteran pods” are becoming an increasingly common part of state and county lockups as the criminal justice system focuses more on helping troubled former service members. Veteran inmates are more likely to have reported mental health issues, particularly PTSD, according to a snapshot of the prison population by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Nationwide, veterans accounted for 8 percent of all inmates, and there are at least 86 prisons and jails with designated veterans’ housing, according to federal government statistics. Many of the programs were started in the last five years.

Some of the half-dozen veterans’ dorms in Florida prisons feature daily flag raisings or monthly formations. Others, like Albany, tend to avoid military trappings. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department offers yoga and meditation and works with a local veterans treatment court. But their common aim is to create an esprit de corps and a “safe space” to help veterans deal with their issues and reintegrate into society.

Sixty-two-year-old Army veteran Roberto James Davis said a two-month stay in veterans housing at San Bruno in the San Francisco Bay area in 2016 helped him change his mindset after decades of arrests and substance abuse. He now has steady work as a truck driver.

“I really started listening this time around,” Davis said. “I was determined that if I got another shot I was going to make the most of it. And I have.”

Albany’s pod, a Spartan common area flanked by two stories of single-bunk cells, recently housed about a dozen men who served in different branches and in different decades stretching back to the Vietnam War.

But for the military branch emblems on a far wall, it looks like any jail block. The difference here is that the veterans receive intensive counseling and help from the nonprofit group Soldier On.

On a recent morning, 10 men gathered around the pod’s bolted-down tables and drew pictures representing what they were doing in past years. The exercise helped them reflect on the choices they made that eventually landed them in jail.

“I’ve held a lot of conversation — good conversations — with some of you guys,” Wesley Merriwether, 23, said during a recent morning group session. “Like I said, I’m young I can’t give you much advice, but the advice I can give you: Just keep your heads up.”

Inmates and officials say the Albany pod is cleaner and less troublesome than other tiers. When a guard was attacked here in 2016 by an inmate from another unit, the pod inmates ran from across the common area to the guard’s aid.

“We send all these young men and women overseas and when they come back, a lot of them with PTSD, domestic violence, drug issues,” said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, who started the veterans pod more than three years ago. “And I just felt we could have treated them better or done something for them.”

Apple said 6 percent of the roughly 331 participating veterans in Albany over the years have returned to jail, far better than the typical jail recidivism rates of more than 40 percent.

It helps that Soldier On also provides post-release services like housing. So when Tommy Hartmann was released from the Albany jail last year after 90 days he had a place to go. The 29-year-old Army veteran moved into Soldier On’s transitional housing in Leeds, Massachusetts.

He also got a job with Soldier On, on the resident staff. When the group helped serve a holiday meal recently, Hartmann returned to his old block to chat up inmates he knew.

This time he wore khakis and a tie. And he got to go home at the end of the night.

“They set me up to succeed when I got out,” Hartmann said before his visit. “Rather than just sitting on the tier, playing cards, watching TV, doing pushups, whatever, I was doing positive stuff toward my recovery and becoming a better part in society.”


Boston Herald features Soldier On Women’s Program

By-women, for-women housing program helping to save lives

Chris Cassidy Tuesday, December 05, 2017

(Northampton, MA 11/30/17) Veteran’s from left Donna Hilliard, Vivian Washington, Ashley Martel, Page Policastro, Mary Thurber and Meghan Gokey outside the women’s dorm house at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northampton on Thursday, November 30, 2017. Staff photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki

Soldier On, a Leeds, Mass.-based charity aiming to end veteran homelessness, constructed 16 units of transitional housing specifically for women in December 2015 — and they were immediately fully occupied.

“I think the need is much bigger than people realize, because it’s so hard to estimate the number of homeless female veterans, because they’re not identifying as veterans. They’re not identifying as homeless,” said Sara Scoco, the director of the women’s program at Soldier On.

“They’re oftentimes couch-surfing or staying in these relationships. A lot of women are living in their cars just to try and survive. A lot of women are taking care of families and … they’re too proud to say, ‘I’m homeless. I need help,’ ” Scoco said.

So Soldier On became one of the few nonprofits in America to construct housing specifically to meet the unique needs of female vets. The $3.1 million building in Leeds features four suites of four bedrooms for a total of 16 rooms.

There’s a shared living room, and the building sits on the Northampton VA Medical Center campus, which agreed to a 75-year lease to Soldier On for the housing property.

Women can stay for months or years at a time while they seek treatment, go back to school, save money or try to land a job, Scoco said.

Most have experienced some kind of abuse, said Scoco, including about 80 percent who are victims of military sexual trauma.

“It’s really intimidating for a woman to walk into the VA when many of the services are male-dominated,” Scoco said. “It’s often assumed that the woman is not the veteran, but the daughter or sister of the veteran herself.”

As word has spread, Scoco said Soldier On fielded calls from Colorado, Texas and as far away as Hawaii.

The organization receives funding from the VA, among other sources. And it is hoping to receive state money to build permanent housing specifically for women vets in Pittsfield.

The organization started in 1994 as United Veterans of America. As its men’s program grew, women also began to seek services, leading to the launch of the women’s program in 2005, which was mainly a separate unit within the men’s housing.


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.


Solider On’s Alvin Buckley Shares His Story with Clarion Ledger

Soldier On reaches out to homeless, jobless veterans

Billy Watkins, Clarion Ledge


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.
Rude awakening
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 )


Setti Warren Visits Pittsfield to Discuss Wanting to Increase Veterans Secretary Role

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.
Warren is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. He is one of three Democratic candidates who have tossed their hats into the ring to challenge Republican Gov. Charlie Baker next year. The others are Bob Massie and Jay Gonzalez.

Incarcerated Veterans Program at the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution featured on Fox61

Program seeks to help veterans behind bars transition back into society

ENFIELD — Jaime Longolucco and Dwayne Marquis are inmates. But before serving time in prison, they served America.

“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.”


Executive Vice President, Michael Hagmaier on 22News InFocus Discussion Panel

InFocus: Military family, active duty and veteran support programs

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – Each November 11th, we honor veterans on Veterans Day. But did you know that November is also Military Family Appreciation Month?

This week on 22News 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

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.


Toll free number to contact us for supportive service for Veteran and Families: 866-406-8449, Michael Hagmaier -413-822-8240

AIRMAN AND FAMILY READINESS PROGRAMBarnes Air National Guard Base, Lisa Potito-manager 413-568-9151 x 6981183

PIONEER VALLEY USO-250 Jenkins Street,Westover ARB, MA 01022,  

Rob Baron, Board of Directors and Public Information Officer, 413-557-3290,

AIRMAN AND FAMILY READINESS PROGRAM- Westover Air Reserve Base, Shanna King, manager-413-557-3024


Tracy J. Taylor, President, Western Mass Gold Star Mothers,



Soldier On Plans in Mississippi featured in the News

National organization providing permanent homes for homeless vets in Mississippi
By Roslyn Anderson – Jackson, MS


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.

Copyright 2017 MSNewsNow. All rights reserved.


Non-profit Announce Place for Mississippi Homeless Veterans

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.

 Click to listen to Interview.

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