For ‘True Veterans,’ a Real Home
Veteran Jeff Rowe, 54, sits on his bed at Veterans Inc. in Bradford, Vt. Rowe has lived at the home for nearly two years, getting a job and buying a car since moving in. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Veteran Keith Morgan, 37, has been living at the home for a few weeks now. On the floor is some of the ultra-marathoner’s exercise equipment. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Veteran Kenn Maskell, 61, was making his bed on his first day at Veterans Inc. in Bradford, Vt., recently. Maskell had just come from a shelter where he was sharing a room with 10 other people. In Bradford, he shares the apartment with one other person but the bedroom is his own. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Bradford, Vt. — Keith Morgan, an ultra-marathoner, EMT and former ocean lifeguard, never expected to end up in a shelter for homeless veterans. Once named rookie of the year for saving panicked swimmers, the handsome, outgoing Morgan is accustomed to making rescues. But this spring, after a long, hidden struggle with alcohol, he was the one drowning.
In March, the Claremont resident detoxed at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction and stayed for treatment in the VA’s residential recovery center. Then, he moved to Veterans Inc., a residence for homeless veterans in Bradford.
“It’s humbling to be 37, and here I am. But that’s OK,” he said, his long legs draped over an ottoman in the house’s shared day room. “I’m utilizing whatever resources are available to help me in my recovery. If I don’t get (that) right, nothing else is going to work.”
From the front, the white, two-story house nestled in a historic neighborhood on Main Street looks like any other apartment building. But instead of college kids, couples and families, the 15-unit structure is home to more than a dozen formerly homeless men.
Previously a nursing home, it’s run by the Worcester, Mass.-based Veterans Inc., a nonprofit organization that serves veterans across New England. Residents live in furnished one- or two-bedroom apartments. Depending on their finances, they contribute 30 percent of their income, up to $150, toward their monthly rent.
If they stick with their treatment plans, the men can stay for up to two years. The plans, which staff members help them create, are designed to address the roots of homelessness, including addiction, mental illness, financial problems and sexual or physical abuse.
Many residents struggle with alcoholism-related anxiety or unaddressed childhood trauma, such as “divorce, abandonment, corporal punishment or worse,” and younger veterans often lack the skills needed to deal with situations they encounter overseas, said John Dulmage, site coordinator. “The one common thread is the inability to cope with their lives.”
On its website, Veterans Inc. lists a range of factors that can hurt a veteran’s ability “to function in civilian society.” Prolonged separation from “supports such as family and close friends, highly stressful training and occupational demands, and mental or physical injuries sustained in combat” can put veterans at greater risk for substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The organization tries to help veterans tackle whatever is holding them back and provides support along the way.
“Veterans have a good work ethic and they understand what it means to set a goal,” said Dulmage, who helps them break down their objectives into manageable steps.
He and other staff members connect residents to services, such as job training, legal assistance, drug and alcohol counseling, and psychotherapy. They help them find work, enroll in classes and buy cars. And when it’s time to move on, they work together to secure stable, sustainable housing.
In the process, they balance kindness and discipline.
“You have to be gentle. You have to care,” Dulmage said. “But at the same time you have to play the adult in the room.”
If they’re following their treatment plans, veterans can live in the house for up to two years. But not everyone succeeds.
“Safety is key for men who might be tempted to drink or use,” and for people who have been abused, Dulmage said, and the house rules reflect that.
A plastic jar on the corner of his desk serves as a reminder that residents can be tested for drug use at any time. Those who drink or use drugs in the house “are out in a heartbeat,” he said.
In his short tenure, the former Marine has already had some sad moments. He’s had to ask one person to leave for drinking at the house. And, he’s found, some veterans are simply unable to muster enough trust even to get started.
Recently, a victim of military sexual trauma was referred to the program. The 56-year-old man completed the intake interview but was too fearful to sign the paperwork.
“I tried to reassure him he would be safe,” Dulmage said, but the man left after just one day. In the morning, it “didn’t look like he’d even set his head on the pillow.”
No overnight guests are allowed, and residents are expected to meet with Dulmage once a week to discuss their treatment plans, problems and needs. They share chores, such as maintaining the building and using the house van to drive their cohorts to appointments.
They are expected to care for the house as if it were their own. Since it opened in September 2011, residents have built wooden benches for outside seating and installed horseshoe pits alongside the house. In the summer, yellow daylilies planted by a former resident burst into bloom in the front yard.
Just down the hall from Dulmage’s office is a common room with a TV, computers and dining room set. Decorated in earth tones, with comfortable armchairs and a sofa, it’s designed to promote interaction. Sometimes, it does.
The men meet there for weekly house meetings, and Sundays afternoons can find them gathering to watch sports. The program encourages socializing; residents sometimes volunteer, hike or bicycle together, and plans are under way to create a weight room.
“Having them isolated within themselves, within their own minds, there’s a lot of drama and demons that they encounter,” Dulmage said. “Interacting with other people is healthy … and it gets them out of themselves.”
It’s not easy to arrange. Organizing social events can be “like herding cats,” he said. “They just want to be left alone.”
A new tradition Dulmage started, eating Sunday dinner together, seems to be catching on.
“Food will always attract people,” and sharing a meal leads to conversation, he said.
And over Memorial Day weekend, they held a “slam dunk” cookout, Dulmage said. Six guys pitched in, shucking corn and making potato salad, and the residents broke in their new horseshoe pit.
Hope and Help
On a recent morning, Jeff Rowe, 54, drove a new resident to the grocery store. A little while later, the two men carried in several plastic bags filled with food.
“We try to help each other out,” said Rowe, who had arrived almost two years earlier, homeless, jobless and without a car.
A trim guy, his salt-and-pepper hair cropped close to his head, Rowe grew up in foster care in Massachusetts. He enlisted in the Army at age 19 and served for three years.
When he got out, he did production work in the semiconductor industry and a soda company in Worcester. But several years ago, drinking left him unemployed and homeless. He moved into a friend’s trailer in Aroostook County, Maine.
There, he got sober and started looking for work. He delivered newspapers for a while but couldn’t get “anything solid,” he said. “It’s tough, real tough.”
Rowe, who loves the outdoors, had camped in Vermont as a kid. When a friend retired to the state in November 2010, he tagged along on a whim. After doubling up with his friend for a few days, Rowe asked to be dropped off at a shelter in Rutland. He stayed for four months.
It was a good experience, said Rowe, who was amazed at the generosity he found. On Christmas, the day room at the shelter was half filled with gifts, all donated by local people.
“It was incredible,” he said. “I got enough winter clothes for like five years, all new stuff.”
From the shelter, he went to a halfway house in Bellows Falls, Vt. He’d stayed sober since Maine. The problem was finding work.
“I applied for a lot of different jobs and did a lot of time beating the pavement,” he said.
In August 2011, he moved to Veterans Inc. The staff set him up with a paid work therapy job at a regional hospital. He started off delivering materials within the hospital and was later hired for a housekeeping position. Since then, he’s bought his own car, a 2009 Hyundai, through More Than Wheels, a program that offers financial education and helps people buy reliable cars. He’s also been going to wellness groups and 12-step meetings.
Rowe said he wants to let other veterans know there’s hope and help.
“I just can’t say enough about this place,” he said. “They give you a sober and clean environment to live in … get you help, therapy, whatever you need to get your head right. … For a homeless person, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
In addition to his job, he’s also taken on house responsibilities. He and another resident share a master key, in case someone locks himself out of his room when Dulmage is away. Unlike some residents, he stays in contact with his family, a grown daughter and son and several grandchildren.
A reader, he prefers history and biography, and is a fan of John Updike and Annie Proulx. In his neatly organized apartment, the Chicago Manual of Style shares a table with a book about the Roosevelts.
Rowe, who never went to college, said he’d like to be a writer, selling short stories, but “that’s probably not going to happen.”
He expects to leave Veterans Inc. in August and then look for a place elsewhere in the Upper Valley. Down the road, he’d like to earn some sort of certification, maybe in medical records or drug and alcohol counseling.
“I think I know something about that,” he added with a laugh.
Morgan, the former ocean lifeguard from Claremont, has a hard time sitting still and the resume to prove it. In addition to his military service and working as an EMT, he’s been a bouncer, wildland firefighter and adventure counselor. An amateur runner, the 6-foot-5 Morgan completed the Vermont 50-mile Ultra Run in 2008.
The next year he attempted the Vermont 100, but was too hung over to finish.
“I plan to try it again sober,” he said, his blue eyes sparkling.
Since arriving a few weeks ago, he’s dived into everything Veterans Inc. has to offer. “I love it up here. I like the house,” he said. “It’s a good, healthy environment for me to get a foundation in.”
He’s seeing two therapists and going to 12-step meetings. “Why does it have to be so hard to live like a normal person?” he wondered aloud.
A Connecticut native, Morgan joined the Air Force after high school and later served in the Army National Guard and Air National Guard. Like his father and grandfather, also veterans, his life revolved around alcohol. But unlike them, he faced the problem directly.
Morgan stopped drinking when he was 22 and stayed sober for seven years. But then doubt crept in. “Maybe I’m not an alcoholic,” he remembers thinking. “Maybe I was young.”
In Connecticut, he worked with troubled teens and also worked on an ambulance, where he met a lot of drug addicts. “I helped them. I cared about them,” he said. “I was so active in recovery myself. But that wasn’t enough to keep me sober.”
He started drinking on the sly, trying to hide from his sober friends. “I always knew that it wasn’t right,” he said. “You can never go back. I can try and fool myself, but it’s not possible.”
A few years ago he moved to Claremont to be near his young daughter, who lives with her mother. During the day, he did carpentry. At night, he drank. For a long time, he was mad at his father, “an angry guy” who died after overdosing on his medication.
“You’re supposed to teach me how to get out of that,” he remembers thinking.
Now, his perspective is different. “It’s up to me to stop the cycle.”
On a recent afternoon, Morgan reflected on the day he had just spent with his 3-year-old daughter. On previous visits, he was often hung over or thinking about his next drink.
“It completely ruled my mind,” he said. “I’m a better person when I am not drinking.”
Kenn Maskell stepped onto the stoop to smoke a cigarette one afternoon last week. A slim, soft spoken man with a patchy gray beard, he is one of the newest residents.
Maskell, 61, has bounced around quite a bit in his life. Born in Burlington, he’s lived all over the state, moving for several marriages, and recently spending time in the Bellows Falls halfway house.
A father of five, he hears from his oldest daughter on holidays but has otherwise lost touch with his family. “I haven’t settled down anywhere long enough,” he said.
Last year, he escaped a difficult relationship and wound up homeless. After staying with his in-laws for a time, he went to a shelter in Barre, Vt.
With 27 people and two bathrooms, “it was pretty hectic,” said Maskell, a recovering alcoholic. But he kept going to 12-step meetings and managed to stay sober. He considered moving in with his brother, a fellow veteran, in New York, but finally decided to stay in Vermont near the VA.
“I have a lot of medical needs,” said Maskell, who served in the Marine Corps from 1969-1972.
He was a carpenter, but health problems, including a heart condition, have left him unable to work. When he turns 62, he’ll move into senior housing, but in the meantime, he’ll stay in Bradford and volunteer.
After a stroke left him blind in one eye, he no longer drives. Instead, he’ll take the bus to the VA center a few days a week to work with patients, he said. “Some of them don’t get many visitors.”
He’s still adjusting to the new place, but so far, so good. “They help you out a lot,” he said.
The day he arrived, Rowe drove him to the grocery store to buy food and other essentials, like laundry soap. “The first thing I did when I got here was wash all my laundry,” he said with a shy smile.
Maskell said he misses the friends he made in the shelter but prefers his new digs. “Nobody bothers anybody here,” he said. “I’m pretty lucky that I was able to get in.”
Passion and Empathy
Dulmage understands “the head-set” of the guys he works with.
A major in the Marine Corps, he retired in 1993 following a 23-year career that spanned the Vietnam era to the Gulf War. He had a second career as an independent management consultant and then, in 2003, went back to school.
He holds several degrees: a master’s in educational technology; a bachelor’s in psychology, philosophy and theology; and a bachelor’s in neuroscience. But it’s the last one he’s most proud of. Dulmage, who earned the degree from Norwich University in May of last year, had intended to become a nurse.
But at the prompting of his wife, now deceased, he changed direction. As part of his coursework, he researched traumatic brain injury in veterans. As the senior veteran on campus, he also took part in a work-study program with Veterans Affairs, helping students transition from military to civilian life.
“I got more and more interested in the plight of homelessness,” he said, which led him to set up an internship at The Veterans’ Place in Northfield, Vt., which offers transitional housing for homeless veterans.
Dulmage, who joined Veterans Inc. in April, is passionate about the place and its mission. And he empathizes with the sometimes twisted paths the men’s lives have taken.
“We have some really good hearts here, true veterans,” he said. “These folks here that have chosen the military as a way of life have not done it for reward or recognition. They did it because it was the right thing to do.”
And none of them planned to be where they are, he said.
“Who sets out to be a homeless alcoholic?”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3210.