All posts by Casey DiCicco

Fox News features Mississippi Incarcerated Veterans Program

Veterans released from prison get second chance

By Willie James Inman Fox News

A unique program is trying to ensure veterans who’ve served time in prison don’t face a tough battle for a job when they’re released.

Soldier On, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts, runs an incarcerated veterans program focused on training and preparing inmates for life after prison. The program is now in its third year after recently expanding into Mississippi.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections implemented the concept at one of its facilities in 2016, and so far the initiative has helped at least 56 former inmates and veterans get back on their feet after spending time behind bars.

“Programs like this are going to save the state money because we’ll have fewer people in prison and more rehabilitated people getting on the right track and improving their lives, their family and their community,” MDOC commissioner Pelicia E. Hall said in a news release about the program. “This is a workforce development program that changes the direction of people who may have gone down the wrong road. This turns them into tax payers rather than tax burdens.”

The initiative is based on a program started in 2014 by Soldier On at the Albany County Correctional Facility in New York. Soldier On administers programs assisting veterans in several other states. The counterpart inmate veterans program in Mississippi was started with the help of Voice of Calvary Ministries, which assists homeless veterans and their families.

Phil Reed, president and CEO of VOCM says the core of the initiative is centered around Moral Reconation Therapy.

“It really is a well put together program that works with the veterans,” Reed told Fox News. “[It makes them think about] what kind of choices did you make to get you here and what are you going to do differently starting today and especially when you get out so you don’t make the choice to come back?”

B.R. Hawkins, the grants manager for Soldier On in Mississippi, says the program is supported by federal grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Labor at no cost to state taxpayers. The goal is to reduce the chances of an inmate returning to prison.

“We work with them in getting stable housing before they come out,” Hawkins told Fox News. “And work with them as much as possible to get a job before they come out. So right now we have about 38 veterans enrolled in our program.”

According to Soldier On, 277 veterans at the Albany County Correctional Facility have been admitted into the program since 2014. Only 12 veterans have returned to prison due to a new charge.

Hawkins said she and her team personally follow up with each former inmate helping them restart their lives. She notes many employers may have an issue with hiring a convicted felon, but she’s found employers willing to give those released a new shot at life.

Eligible participants in the program are moved or transferred to a special ‘pod’ or group located at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Once there, the inmates take part in daily classes at the prison. One of those former inmates is Otis Banks, who served in the National Guard before being convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping. He served 15 years in prison after his conviction.

“I didn’t have to do what I did, but we all make bad choices at times,” we have to live with those choices,” Banks said, reflecting on his past.

Now that he’s out of prison for nearly a year, he has a car, an apartment and a good paying job. Banks describes himself as a devout Christian and said he feels he has a new lease on life after his experience.

“It was hard for me to acquire my social security card or a drivers license or an ID and you understand that you need that to even find a job,” Banks said. “It was so many people that was going out of their way to make sure that I had these items. The program is truly a blessing.”

Banks said the other inmates in the program value their experiences because it offers them another shot at life beyond prison walls. Although some of his former prison mates will never be released, Banks said a sense of camaraderie still existed within the special wing they were assigned to.

According to a spokesperson for MDOC, the program will continue to be administered at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Hawkins said she hopes to have 60 veterans enrolled in the classes in Mississippi by the end of the year.

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The Berkshire Eagle: A Partnership with Jacob’s Pillow

  A delicate dance: Veterans captivated, unharmed by Pillow
By Benjamin Cassidy

“I had shivers up my spine.”

Larry, a U.S. Marines veteran, had just watched Roy Assaf Dance perform a duet exploring an intimate relationship between a man and a woman at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

“Larry” had been eager to participate in a partnership this summer between the prestigious dance center and Soldier On, a nonprofit that helps homeless veterans find permanent housing.

The veteran’s name has been changed in this story to protect his identity per his request due to concerns for his family.

Four hours earlier, he was lingering alone outside Soldier On’s Pittsfield office, waiting for the van that would take him to the Becket institution. On a warm Saturday morning in July, he was wearing a black suit jacket and jeans, a white shirt with black stripes, gray-rimmed sunglasses and a U2 pin on one of his lapels, exhibiting the aura of an arts scene regular. His attire and posture — chin lifted, back straight — contrasted starkly with the men slouching silently in a waiting room inside just a few minutes earlier, the front desk unattended, a smoky stillness presiding.

“Modern dance is very cool,” Larry told me as he waited.

As a Berkshire County resident his entire life (he’s now in his late 50s), he had long held an appreciation for Jacob’s Pillow. Yet, he had never visited the site.

“It wasn’t, like, my thing,” Larry said.

On two consecutive July weekends, Soldier On and Jacob’s Pillow tried to combat this feeling by bringing homeless veterans to the dance center to tour the grounds and take in military-themed performances. On July 8 and 9, groups watched Jessica Lang Dance explore military loss in “Thousand Yard Stare,” and on this day, the veterans would be watching Roy Assaf Dance. In addition to the duet, “Six Years Later,” the Israeli company would be performing “The Hill,” an all-male trio about the Six-Day War’s Givat Hatachmoshet, or Ammunition Hill, battle in Jerusalem.

“We thought [the content] might really resonate with the veterans’ experience,” said Thasia Giles, director of community engagement at Jacob’s Pillow, during a telephone interview.

Before the previous weekend’s visit, Soldier On case manager and artist-in-residence Nathan Hanford said he hadn’t expected the veterans to speak positively about the experience upon returning to their sites. He thought they would fear ridicule for expressing interest in the arts. To Hanford’s surprise, however, the groups were “glowing,” he said, encouraging other veterans to sign up for next week’s trip.

Larry was one of the new recruits, though he wasn’t a tough draw. His mother used to tell him he was a doctor’s baby because his tastes mirrored those of the affluent.

“I always appreciated the finer things,” he said.

But to say Larry’s current crowd doesn’t have such deep pockets would be a drastic understatement. Larry lives in one of Soldier On’s 39 permanent housing units designated for homeless veterans across the parking lot from the main building, which holds a kitchen, gym and transitional housing. Veterans pay rent through Section 8 and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) subsidies, according to Soldier On director of communications Casey DiCicco. The organization also has 87 permanent units in other locations — 44 in Northampton and 43 in Chicopee — and is developing 51 more in Agawam.

Eight veterans from the Northampton site were scheduled to meet with six more from Pittsfield on this Saturday, but a few from Pittsfield were unable to attend, leaving driver Steven Jette (a veteran and Soldier On member himself), E.J. Schlup and Larry. When Jette arrived, I took one of the empty seats.

Larry soon began telling the story of how he became homeless. Following his stint in the Marines, Larry worked in a local hospital. He was married with two daughters.

“I was a regular Joe,” he said.

But then health problems cropped up — diabetes and hepatitis C, he said.

Doctors put him on Interferon to treat his hepatitis C, but a vicious reaction to the medicine ensued, he said, rolling up a pant leg to display the scaly, dark scars it left behind. To fight the pain, a doctor prescribed fentanyl, but that was too strong for Larry.

“And then the doctor said the magic words,” Larry recalled, “‘Have you ever heard of OxyContin?'”

The pain medication is highly addictive and has played a significant role in the nation’s opioid epidemic.

“It just takes you over,” Larry said.

He quickly became addicted to the drug and soon found himself using others. Additionally, his marriage had fallen apart due to his “shenanigans.” When his girlfriend grew tired of them, too, he had nowhere to go and was too proud to ask his daughters for money. He was homeless for about a month, he estimated, before finding Soldier On.

I changed the subject, addressing what Hanford had raised a few days earlier: Was attending a modern dance performance viewed as an affront to masculinity in the veteran community?

“That’s a good question,” Schlup responded instead, swiveling in the passenger seat. He arrived at Soldier On in June, staying in Pittsfield’s transitional housing as he continues to deal with complications from a severe stroke he suffered in 2015. Though he was dressed more modestly (blue jeans, T-shirt, Nikes) than Larry, Schlup knew the terrain they were about to traverse much better. For more than a decade, he and his wife, Diana, visited Jacob’s Pillow regularly while they were living in New York state. The dancers enthralled Schlup, particularly the women (“it’s amazing the devotion and focus it takes”), but he said American men’s egos don’t often allow for this appreciation of female independence.

“A lot of guys would be terribly intimidated by this,” he said.

Intimidation isn’t the first feeling that Jacob’s Pillow spectators usually experience upon entering the campus. Nestled deep in the Becket woods, the dance center’s scenic grounds are naturally inviting, and on this sunny Saturday, with children playing in fields, dancers eating lunch among their admirers and light beaming through the trees, the area even acquired an enchanting, communal quality.

But there was some unmistakable tension when we arrived. After facilities coordinator Jay Lopez, a veteran himself, waved us into the parking lot, we met up with Giles, fellow community engagement staffer Ivy Kuhn and Hanford on the center’s main pathway. Giles and Kuhn began outlining the plan for the day (tour, lunch, performance), but Hanford looked concerned.

“[I’m] not in contact yet with Leeds,” Hanford said, referring to the larger group making the trek from Northampton.

In the ensuing moments, Giles tried to override this disquiet, asking Schlup, who visited the previous weekend, how he was doing.

“I’m trying to keep my brain from shorting out,” Schlup answered, referencing his ongoing neurological problems.

Seven men from Leeds arrived shortly thereafter, bringing energy to our languishing group. They greeted everybody around the circle, offering handshakes and hugs. One of them, Gilbert Carr, quickly began a long afternoon of phone documentation, snapping selfies and shooting videos.

NINA COCHRAN - THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE  Gilbert Carr taking a selfie in front of the Doris Duke Theatre, where the group saw performances of Roy Assaf's "Six Years Later" and "The Hill." Becket, Mass. July 15, 2017.

NINA COCHRAN – THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
Gilbert Carr taking a selfie in front of the Doris Duke Theatre, where the group saw performances of Roy Assaf’s “Six Years Later” and “The Hill.” Becket, Mass. July 15, 2017.

Kuhn started the tour by leading us to a boulder behind the Hunter House: It was Pillow Rock, one of the inspirations for the site’s naming. After the group posed for a photo, I walked with Isaac Paul, a U.S. Army veteran, to The Ben & Estelle Sommers Studio. He had attended a session last week, too. “I’ve never had any attention like that,” he said.

Inside the studio, it was hot, leading to some questions about air conditioning. Nope.

“It’s no different than our barracks,” Lopez said. He explained that dancers’ preparations are as intense as soldiers’. Lopez has had both experiences, taking up the art after his time in the Marines. When he informed his platoon sergeants and lieutenants of his plans after the military, they began calling him “Corporal Twinkle-Toes.”

“I was a bit of the running joke,” Lopez recalled during a subsequent telephone interview, though he says his fellow Marines have since watched him perform.

The veterans certainly appreciated Lopez’s unofficial role as bridge between military and dance, but they hardly needed it. The group asked questions and studied their surroundings intently throughout the tour, which included stops at the Ruth St. Denis Studio (Hanford’s “church” during his decade-plus stint at the festival) and the center’s archives.

During lunch, I sat with Carr and Ernest Hughey, a 31-year-old U.S. Army veteran who has spent time in jail since his service. He joined Soldier On in 2015 and was thrilled to be visiting Jacob’s Pillow because of his own passion for the art form. “I just watched Michael Jackson,” Hughey said of his early dance influences.

Hughey was particularly struck by the famed Inside/Out Stage, where the group congregated after lunch before proceeding to the Doris Duke Theatre for the afternoon’s main event.

“It’s been terribly enjoyable,” Schlup reflected before the performance.

With aggressive movements and familiar material, however, the dances presented an opportunity to trigger troubling memories and even re-traumatize (the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 10-30 percent of veterans of the U.S. wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, though these numbers are based on representative samples rather than concrete figures). Giles and Hanford attempted to plan every detail of the day, such as the group’s seating position (the third-to-last row) at the dance, accordingly. (Three female Soldier On members also toured the grounds, but they were mostly kept separate from the men due to the prevalence of sexual trauma in the military, according to DiCicco.)

“If any of you guys feel like it’s too much, you should feel free to exit the theater,” Hanford told the huddled male group outside the venue.

Still, the veterans encountered some difficulties. In “Six Years Later,” a prolonged period of inactivity preceded the duet, which made veteran Anthony Stirlacci anxious. He was worried something had gone wrong. “Some stuff we can take. Some stuff we can’t,” he said during the intermission. Stirlacci also cited the theater’s darkness as a concern; the previous week had been brighter, he said.

The next composition, “The Hill,” had more potential to trigger, with depictions of death and struggle. At one point, a dancer heaves a fallen one over his shoulder. But the show was mostly harmless, according to many of the veterans. One oversight was the use of a sparkler near the front of the stage. From the veterans’ position near the top of the bleachers, it was difficult to see what was happening. “I was just hoping it didn’t blow up,” Lewis Gomez said later, before adding that the incident didn’t impact him much. He was one of many in the group who preferred the first dance.

“The hands were so cool,” Stephen Cook said of some particularly nuanced movements during “Six Years Later.”

After “The Hill,” Hughey was one of the first in the theater to stand.

“I wanted to see more,” he told me as we descended the stairs. Minutes later, he was hugging Assaf, who met with the veterans outside the theater for a question-and-answer session about his time serving in Israel’s military and its influence on his work. “It was not my intention to make a piece about combat,” he explained.

NINA COCHRAN - THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE  U.S. veterans in discussion with Roy Assaf and Avshalom Latucha at the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob's Pillow. Becket, Mass. July 15, 2017.

NINA COCHRAN – THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
U.S. veterans in discussion with Roy Assaf and Avshalom Latucha at the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow. Becket, Mass. July 15, 2017.

“Mission-focused,” Schlup said of Assaf’s performance after we piled back into the van heading to Pittsfield.

Earlier, Larry had offered a more general reflection on the day. “I think I found my new hangout,” he said.

Though Schlup and Larry clearly appreciated the afternoon, I pressed them on the potential for the show to re-traumatize others. Larry mostly kept quiet. Schlup stressed that it’s impossible to account for all potential pitfalls.

“There’s different triggers for different people,” Schlup said, noting that they can range from a dog barking to the smell of jet fuel.

Schlup’s father, for instance, had been in the military and could easily spiral downward. “You were always dancing in a minefield when you were around him,” Schlup said.

For one day, at least, Soldier On members could enjoy their own dances.

NINA COCHRAN - THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE  Lewis Gomez at the public dance rehearsal on the outdoor Inside/Out stage at Jacob's Pillow.  Becket, Mass. July 15, 2017.

NINA COCHRAN – THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
Lewis Gomez at the public dance rehearsal on the outdoor Inside/Out stage at Jacob’s Pillow. Becket, Mass. July 15, 2017.

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A Soldier On Success Story

A young girl from upstate New York dreamt about becoming an astronaut. In 2002, Page Policastro enrolled in the ROTC program at The University of Connecticut to pursue her dream of becoming a pilot. However, after learning she had limited depth perception, Page’s dream quickly came to end. Page quickly looked for alternative routes to be able to live out her dream. In 2003, Page enlisted in the Air Force Reserve and from 2006 to 2011 was on active duty orders. When she was told that that crew chief was a “man’s job” she said sign me up! During her time enlisted, Page experienced the “typical harassment” of name calling being one of the only female crew chiefs. Being quick witted and able to think on her feet, it did not affect her immediately, however, the stress of these interactions built up over time.
The drinking didn’t begin until 2010 when Page’s relationship ended with not only her boyfriend, but her coworker. Their breakup was public knowledge with the rest of their colleagues. Page drank to keep up with the boys and to cope as if nothing had happened.  Then, the reality set in that she was never going to be good enough to earn the respect of her fellow colleagues. The only time Page was ever invited by her squadron was to grab a drink after work. Which led to the progression of drinking to the point of being a functional alcoholic. Over the course of the next year, Page was far from happy, letting the depression set in.
For the next two years, Page became an overachiever as she felt a constant need for everyone’s approval. One day, she had overworked herself to the point where she was not paying attention and tripped on a B-5 stand and hit her head. In her attempt to be tougher than the men in her squadron, Page didn’t listen to them when they instructed to her to go to the hospital. Roughly three weeks after her accident, Page suffered a grand mal seizure after which she was promptly removed from the flight line and put in an office squadron.
Page moved home to Shelton, CT as she could no longer deal with sitting behind a desk. By the fall of 2012 Page entered a 28-day rehab facility in Hartford. During those four weeks, the distance Page created between herself and the alcohol made her feel so wonderful that she stayed at the facility for an additional 90 days. Page soon applied to Bridgeport Hospital School of Nursing to be a surgical technologist.
By 2014, Page graduated top in her class and received a job offer from Yale-New Haven hospital. In September, Page ended up moving in with an old colleague who was dealing with a separation from his wife in Middleton, CT. The move created a long commute and it made more sense for Page to transfer to St. Francis Hospital, which was closer to home. The timing seemed perfect for both then to live together as they both believed they were helping each other out. They always joked about being in love with one another, which led to a relationship – the biggest mistake Page could ever make.
After being sober for year and half, Page relapsed back to drinking. She had been manipulated to believe that no one could ever love her other than this man. The drinking became a daily occurrence, causing her to lose her employment. Page’s mother, sister, and even her colleagues reached out to help her, but he kept Page in the dark about all of them. Before she knew it, Page was isolating herself from everyone but him. When she was sober, Page’s mind was clear.  She knew she gotten herself into a difficult situation as she was now in a full-blown relationship with a married man.
Page went to the West Haven VA to get help.  From there, they sent her to the Bath (NY) VA Medical Center for a four-month program. Upon returning from rehab in February 2016, Page moved to Rocky Hill, CT where she held two jobs at the Middlesex Hospital and the Big Y. During this time Page was living at the Veterans’ Home, but still talking to Eric every day. By July, Page found herself without a bed as she was kicked out of the Veteran’s Home for drinking. While staying at a friend’s, Page fell into such a deep depression that she could not get herself out of bed.
Broken, with no self-esteem and in a hopeless relationship with no future with a married man, Page knew she could not fight her internal battle with herself any longer. After a friend saw a sign for “Soldier On” when passing through Leeds, MA, she decided to see what the organization was all about. After doing some research, Page found the application for the Women’s Program, but after submitting her application she was informed there was waiting list. Four days later, Page received a phone call from Sara Scoco, Director of the Women’s Program, welcoming her to Soldier On. On October 19, 2016, Page started her journey to get her life back in order. Within no time, Page became a member of the house committee and got a job at the local Big Y.
While Page credits Soldier On for helping reclaim her life, she said that she could not have gotten where she is today without with the love and support of her mother and sister. Page has now built up her confidence and understands that she does not need to liked by everyone, but rather respected by them. Celebrating 8 month of sobriety, Page has been accepted into the nursing program at Holyoke Community College where she will begin classes this September. As Page transitions into the community in September, Soldier On wishes her the best and will always welcome her to come and visit.

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Western Massachusetts Veterans Treatment Court Graduation

On June 28th judges, district attorneys, elected officials and police honored Johanna Montalvo, Anthony Dauphinais, Robert Motley and Kenneth Martin as the first graduates of the Western Massachusetts Veterans Treatment Court in a ceremony held at Holyoke District Court.
Judge Laurie MacLeod presented each graduate with a certificate and a challenge coin. The latter is a medallion given and received in a gesture rooted in military history as a sign of camaraderie, membership in a mission completed and a tangible token that the work continues.
“You can see today the evidence that the program works,” said MacLeod, presiding justice of the treatment court.

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Johanna Montalvo served in the U.S. Army for six years and the National Guard in Puerto Rico for two years. As Johanna awaited her court appearance in November 2015, Alexis Truslow from Soldier On visited Johanna and interviewed her. Montalvo was not aware she was a potential candidate for the Veterans Treatment Court.  She began in the veterans treatment court Nov. 4, 2015, one of its first participants, said Chief Sean M. McBride of the Holyoke District Court Probation Department. “Since beginning the treatment court she has tested clean on every drug test,” he said.

Montalvo spent 9 months at the Soldier On Women’s Program before she transitioned into the community. Montalvo is employed full time as a recovery coach at Hope for Holyoke where she provides support people undergoing substance-abuse treatment.

As the first graduate, Montalvo spoke on behalf of the graduates during the ceremony.

“Does it work? Well,” said Montalvo, laughing and prompting laughter in the courtroom, “I can only speak from my own experience. Today I have a God of my understanding who loves me and guides me every step of the way. I was given the chance of a lifetime. I have been free of mind-altering substances for almost two years.”

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Montalvo received an honorary American flag that flew at the U.S. military’s Al Asad Airbase in Iraq during a 2004 commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The flag was presented by Antonio Padilla, a former U.S. Marine and current probation officer of the Western Massachusetts Veterans Treatment Court in Holyoke District Court. He praised her work with homeless people, helping them find housing and working with police on such issues.
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The mission of the Western Massachusetts Veterans Treatment Court is to reintegrate court-involved individuals who have served in the nation’s armed forces into society as honorable citizens. Admission into the Veterans Treatment Court provides for competent assessment and treatment planning for both substance dependence and mental health disorders. The program included supervision, monitoring and support to veterans while protecting public safety.
The Western MA Veterans Treatment Court offers a voluntary, 18-month probation term intended to serve veterans struggling with mental health and/or substance use disorders. The program involves ongoing judicial and probation supervision with input from a multidisciplinary team of professionals. The Court promotes sobriety, recovery and stability through collaborations with VA and community-based treatment providers including Soldier On. In addition, all participants are matched with a veteran peer mentor who acts as an advocate and mentor.

Click to read the full article.

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MS News featured Mississippi Statewide Incarcerated Veterans Program

Veterans serving time in MS prisons get help from new program Soldier On

Posted by Maggie Wade, News Anchor

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Veterans behind bars in Mississippi are getting help before and after their release from prison. The Mississippi Department of Corrections , MDOC,  is offering the Mississippi Statewide Incarcerated Veterans Program or Soldier On.

Since it’s launch May 9, 2016, 59 inmates have been enrolled.  Right now, 32 former soldiers are participating, including April Williams, who served in the U.S. Air Force.

Williams is a repeat offender who is hoping Soldier On helps her stay out of prison.

April Williams said, “it helps for education, for assistance on bettering your life instead of having to go back to the same hassles. Selling drugs, doing drugs, selling yourself. Whatever it may be.”

This is Williams second time in prison. She is serving two years for shoplifting.

The program is a joint effort between MDOC and Voice of Calvary Ministries. The program has 11 full time volunteers and three part time volunteers in addition to eight correctional officers and one case manager.

Each week veterans receive 20 hours of intensive instruction which includes meditation, life skills, marriage and family, budgeting, wills and estates, resume writing and dealing with consequences.

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Soldier On Featured on 22News Panel Discussion

InFocus: Addressing veterans’ issues and available resources

Many veterans are not aware of resources in their communities to help with transitioning to civilian life.

Amy Phillips, Producer, 22News Investigative Team

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – There are over a million people currently serving in the United States military, including reservists. There are millions more since World War 2 that have retired or been discharged.Some of these brave men and women have experienced conditions most of us could never imagine.

Homelessness, unemployment, Post Traumatic Stress, addiction and suicide are some of the most pressing issues veterans face when returning home from deployment or leaving the military. An essential part of helping veterans transition to civilian life involves their home communities, and connections to local outreach programs.

This Sunday on 22News InFocus our panel of guests represent organizations that provide a variety of supportive resources to veterans, and will discuss what’s being done to help those in need in Western Massachusetts. On the program will be:

  • John Collins, Medical Center Director at the VA of Central and Western Massachusetts Health Care System
  • Dr. Dana Weaver, Mental Health Director at the VA of Central and Western Massachusetts Health Care System
  • Gumersindo Gomez, Executive Director of the Bilingual Veterans Outreach Centers of Massachusetts
  • Christian DiLuzio, Employment and Training Specialist at Veterans, Inc.
  • Michael Hagmaier, Senior Vice President of Soldier On.

If you or someone you know is serving in the military or is a veteran in need of support services, most cities and towns provide a Veterans Service Officer who can help you connect to benefits and programs within your community.  Below are links and contacts to help you get started.

Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ ServicesList of Veterans’ Service Officers by community

VA of Central and Western Massachusetts Health Care System– Leeds, 413-584-4040

BiLingual Veterans Outreach Centers of Massachusetts-Springfield, 413-731-0194

Veterans, Inc24-hour hotline: 1-800-482-2565

Soldier On-Leeds, 413-582-3059; Pittsfield, 413-236-5644

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Soldier On featured in The Boston Globe

Unorthodox Northampton program helps veterans with drug problems

Nick Marrocco, a 62-year-old recovering heroin addict, helps arrivals adjust to Soldier On in Northampton’s Leeds neighborhood.

Nick Marrocco, a 62-year-old recovering heroin addict, helps arrivals adjust to Soldier On in Northampton’s Leeds neighborhood.

By Brian MacQuarrie GLOBE STAFF  MAY 08, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — Army veteran Mark Pritchard, a recovering heroin addict, failed two drug tests early in his 15 months at the Soldier On residential program for homeless veterans here.

Each failed test sent him back to prison for a short time. And each return to Soldier On, he said, brought him close again to easily available heroin both on and off the grounds.

“If you want it, you can get it,” the 44-year-old veteran said of the hilltop campus, where a US Veterans Affairs medical center also is located.

State per-capita data released in 2016 laid bare the consequences: The Northampton neighborhood of Leeds, where Soldier On is based, ranked sixth for opioid-related hospital visits among Massachusetts ZIP codes with 1,000 or more residents, according to the state Health Policy Commission.

Five veterans at Soldier On have died from opioid overdoses over the past three years, staff members said. And police have traced some drug-related crimes in Northampton, such as breaking and entering, to its clients.

“There is a drug issue up there,” said Northampton police Sergeant Corey Robinson. “You’re dealing with people who have substance-abuse issues.”

But the organization is credited by law enforcement and social workers with working hard — and out of the box — to help men and women who have not fared well in traditional rehabilitation programs.

“They’ve been champions for the veterans,” said Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. The potential for relapse among Soldier On’s clients, he added, “comes with the territory in many ways.”

It’s an unorthodox, regulation-averse, and relatively independent life for Soldier On veterans who use 210 transitional and permanent beds in Leeds. The organization also has a total of 82 units of permanent housing in Pittsfield and Chicopee, and 51 more are planned for Agawam in August.

Despite the persistent temptations, Pritchard and other veterans called Soldier On the best chance they have had to reclaim their lost lives.

“We’re all men here,” Pritchard said. “If you show the effort, they’ll show you the effort. If you’re tired of living your life and want to be OK, then you’re going to be OK.”

  James Torrey said he avoided added jail time in exchange for a supervised regimen in which he is given access to treatment.

James Torrey said he avoided added jail time in exchange for a supervised regimen in which he is given access to treatment.

There are no surveillance cameras at Soldier On, which is a nonprofit organization that is separate from the VA facility. There also are no scheduled drug tests, and residents can come and go until a midnight curfew.

Even some of the scheduled medications for veterans are distributed by fellow addicts and alcoholics.

A wide range of services are available, from groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, to mental-health services, relapse support, and spirituality meetings. Narcan, a drug that reverses overdoses, is available in the bathrooms.

“They don’t kick you to the curb,” said Nick Marrocco, a 62-year-old recovering heroin addict who helps new arrivals adjust to Soldier On.

However, the path to the dark side is never far away.

“On the first day I worked here, two people died in Building 26,” said Mike McMahon, a longtime correction officer who oversees day-to-day operations at Soldier On. Marrocco counted three relapses among clients at Soldier On in the past few weeks: two from opioids, one from cocaine.

Jack Downing, the president of Soldier On, said the availability of illegal opioids is part of the sinister, real-world challenges the organization readily confronts — with toughness when needed, but always with compassion. Rooms are searched when illegal drug use is suspected, staff said.

“Everyone who comes to us comes broken,” Downing said. “When they make bad decisions, we don’t want to throw them out. We have to make them believe they’re worth the hope.”

Clients can be ordered to leave the program, but such decisions are made reluctantly and only when the veteran becomes a clear threat to the Soldier On community, said John Crane, the director of case management.

“This is life,” Crane said. “There’s no blanket: ‘You go.’ ”

Expulsion can bring the same perils without the benefit of residential support. Northampton is a short ride from drug hubs in Holyoke and Springfield, and it is easily accessible to Interstate 91, a major north-south corridor of the heroin trade.

On April 29, Northampton police issued a public-health alert after responding to six non-fatal overdoses in 24 hours, including five from heroin. That alert followed an alarming surge last year, when Northampton police responded to 44 heroin overdoses, including six fatalities.

The previous year, police responded to 15 heroin overdoses and no deaths.

Officials at the VA medical center, which has 60 inpatient psychiatric beds, said they did not have overdose data immediately available. “At any given time, a veteran who struggles with addiction may occupy one of these beds,” said Andre Bowser, a spokesman for the facility, formally called the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System.

Liz Whynott, a Northampton native who oversees the Tapestry Health needle-exchange program in Western Massachusetts, said the city of 28,000 people has long grappled with heroin use. But the surge in recent years of heroin laced with fentanyl, a powerful additive, has made the problem more alarming and deadly.

Whynott said Soldier On has welcomed Tapestry’s efforts to provide it with Narcan, and that the group has been receptive to education services.

“Soldier On is amazing,” Whynott said.

Iraq veteran James Torrey echoed that sentiment. Torrey fought with the Marines at the bloody battle of Fallujah in 2004, and later fought a more protracted battle with opioids when he returned home.

About two months ago, Torrey cobbled together $3,500 to bail himself out of jail after being arrested for renting out foreclosed properties to underwrite his heroin habit. Once Torrey left jail, the 30-year-old went directly to Soldier On.

“This program is probably the closest to you being on the street” — but with a big difference, Torrey said recently. “It’s like going to your parents and telling them you [expletive] up. You don’t want to do it, but you know you can.”

Later that day, Torrey donned a nice shirt and tie for his weekly appearance at the veterans treatment court in Holyoke. By volunteering for the 18-month program, Torrey said he avoided additional jail time in exchange for a supervised regimen in which he is given access to treatment, counseled by a mentor who also is a veteran, and tested for drugs.

Torrey told Judge Laurie MacLeod that he is progressing well. He expects to get a union carpenter’s job soon, and Torrey added with a broad smile that he planned to go skydiving in a few days.

“I get bored easily, and that might have been one of the reasons I went back to drugs,” Torrey said.

For now, Torrey is on a better path, although the journey remains pocked with potholes.

Torrey’s mentor, Vietnam veteran Alan Robbins, commended him for taking pride in his appearance.

“It’s been noticed by a few people, how you present yourself,” Robbins said. “You’re doing really great.”

Marrocco gave a haircut to a fellow veteran at Soldier On.

Marrocco gave a haircut to a fellow veteran at Soldier On.

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Soldier On’s Veterans Community Arts Initiative featured in The Recorder

Nathan Hanford, a case worker and artist-in-residence for Soldier On, poses near veterans’ artwork at Salmon Falls Gallery. Hanford teaches art classes in Pittsfield and Northampton to help veterans in transition from homelessness to permanent housing. RECORDER Staff/DIANE BRONCACCIO

Nathan Hanford, a case worker and artist-in-residence for Soldier On, poses near veterans’ artwork at Salmon Falls Gallery. Hanford teaches art classes in Pittsfield and Northampton to help veterans in transition from homelessness to permanent housing. RECORDER Staff/DIANE BRONCACCIO

Art helps these vets ‘Soldier On’

By DIANE BRONCACCIO | Recorder Staff

SHELBURNE FALLS — An unusual exhibit of artwork by U.S. military veterans is now on display through April 30 at the Salmon Falls Gallery. Some of it is unabashedly patriotic, some depicts the natural environment and some is definitely abstract — different perspectives by veterans living in western Massachusetts, who have all struggled with homelessness after coming home from war-torn regions.

Having their artwork on display is a new experience for many of the artists in the Soldier On Veterans Community Arts Initiative. Soldier On is a nonprofit organization started in 1994 and dedicated to ending veterans’ homelessness. Based in Pittsfield and at the VA Hospital in Northampton, Soldier On provides transitional housing and support services to help veterans move from homelessness to home ownership. Veterans programs that help with this transition include: permanent and transitional housing, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, peer support, medical/dental treatment and employment and educational services.

“Our veterans range in age from 19 to in their 70s,” says Nathan Hanford, the artist-in-residence who has been heading Soldier On’s veterans art program for the past three years. “It’s getting increasingly younger,” he says. “We have Vietnam-era veterans to a lot of younger vets under age 30.”

Hanford, a former dancer, became a fiber artist after an accident ended his dance career. His major art form is embroidered images on antique table linens, as his canvas.

So far, about 120 veterans have participated in the arts program, with Hanford teaching an hour-long art class two days a week in Pittsfield and three days a week in Northampton. Hanford has a fine arts background, and honed his skills while living in New York City and in London. But if a veteran pursues an art form he’s not comfortable with, “there are plenty of people willing to help offer their talents,” he said.

“I didn’t ever foresee having this career with vets in the arts,” said Hanford. But Hanford has found that more arts organizations are open to working with the program’s veterans. These include The Mount, the Norman Rockwell Museum, Shakespeare & Co., and Jacob’s Pillow. “People want to be a good neighbor to the veterans that we serve,” he said. “People really feel very strongly about veterans’ issues — homeless vets, in particular.

“Most of these men and women have never pursued arts,” he said. “Soldier On provided me a budget to get materials to those that need them. It forms a strong bond for them to get out of their (transitional) apartments and into the community.”

Artwork by Jeremiah Grimm at Salmon Falls Gallery. RECORDER staff/DIANE BRONCACCIO

Artwork by Jeremiah Grimm at Salmon Falls Gallery. RECORDER staff/DIANE BRONCACCIO

Hanford said learning art skills and making art “starts building something greater than where they’re at.” Hanford said art gives the men and women another way to reflect on their experiences and their lives.

“No one ever gave me a compliment for making something beautiful out of nothing,” is one comment Hanford has heard participants say. He said making art “gives them a step toward being safe, clean and stable.”

Long-time students also help others as they gain more experience; when Hanford is unable to be at a class, the more experienced students will get out the art materials for the others.

Purchase benefits artists

The veterans’ paintings on display at the Salmon Falls Gallery, 1 Ashfield St., are for sale, with the asking prices selected by the artists themselves. The gallery has donated the exhibition space and all proceeds from the sale of any artwork will go directly to the artists.

Hanford also has an exhibit of his embroidered work, “Friendship Thread: Portraits of Friends both Near and Far,” with 20 percent of any sales from those works to benefit Soldier On.

Winter hours for the gallery, through April, are Friday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

To read more click here.

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Albany County Correctional Veteran Pod featured on NBC News

Prisons Experiment With Cell Blocks for Military Vet

By Tracy Connor

There’s never been a fight on the wing. And when an inmate from another wing attacked a correction officer inside the pod last September, video cameras showed the veterans running out of their cells — not to pile on, but to stop the assault.

There’s never been a fight on the wing. And when an inmate from another wing attacked a correction officer inside the pod last September, video cameras showed the veterans running out of their cells — not to pile on, but to stop the assault.

“I don’t think that would have happened on any other tier,” Apple said.

Kyle Weber, 27, who served in the Air Force from 2008 to 2009 and arrived at the pod in October after violating his probation during a dispute with a relative, uses an unexpected phrase to describe the experience: “I feel safe here.”

Weber, who has a diagnosed mental illness, said the self-discipline and brotherhood on the unit surprised him until he thought about the inmates’ shared military background.

“We all fought for something bigger than ourselves,” he said. “This is the best worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Kyle Weber is part of the "veteran pod" at the Albany County Jail in upstate New York. He calls it the "best worst thing" that ever happened to him.

Kyle Weber is part of the “veteran pod” at the Albany County Jail in upstate New York. He calls it the “best worst thing” that ever happened to him.

The Albany County pod, among the first in the nation, is an experiment that reflects the goodwill of the public toward men and women who served the nation, and a shift in criminal justice policies away from the purely punitive.

There are similar programs in prisons and jails across the country — from Arizona, where inmates raise the flag every morning, to Washington state, where they train service dogs for vets returning home with PTSD — but they cover only a small fraction of the estimated 180,000 incarcerated veterans nationwide.

“They’re popping up everywhere,” said Scott Swaim, the division director of Justice for Vets, who is familiar with such pods through his advocacy for veteran treatment courts.

“I think there’s value to it. Military culture is really important and vet-to-vet support works best because all the conversations are shortened. We came from the same foundation. Everybody went through boot camp.”

Because veterans-only cell blocks are so new, official recidivism rates — which typically look at how many inmates are re-arrested in a three-year or five-year period — are scarce. But anecdotally, corrections officials say, pod populations are better behaved inside and less likely to be re-incarcerated after release.

“I don’t even lock up my locker,” said Steve Varnadore, 51, an Army veteran who is in a 125-bed minimum custody veterans dorm in Tucson, Arizona, serving a five-year drug sentence. “You wouldn’t think about coming to a prison to meet really good people, but I’ve met some really good people in my pod.”

Incarcerated veterans prepare the Stars and Stripes for the morning flag-raising at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Washington state

Incarcerated veterans prepare the Stars and Stripes for the morning flag-raising at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Washington state

The pods are program-intensive, a model that Apple agrees would probably improve the outcomes for any prison population. But he and other correction officials also note that veterans often have more education, better job prospects and more access to mental health benefits than the average inmate.

To create the Albany County unit, the jail partnered with a non-profit organization, Soldier On, that provides services for homeless veterans and opened transitional housing just down the road from the lockup. Soldier On staffers are on site 42 hours a week, their work largely paid for through U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs grants that total $225,000 a year, director Jack Downing said.

There are group discussions on addiction and post-traumatic stress, psychological counseling, and one-on-one meetings to connect inmates to benefits and plan for their discharge. A chiropractor paid through private donations treats the inmates with alternative medicine techniques because, the group says, veterans are often resistant to conventional therapies.

Group counseling sessions on the veteran pod at the Albany County jail often tackle issues of post-traumatic stress and addiction

Group counseling sessions on the veteran pod at the Albany County jail often tackle issues of post-traumatic stress and addiction

Pod members can wear Soldier On t-shirts over their uniforms and they get extra time out of their cells. The jail recently started a job program that allowed one prisoner to earn thousands of dollars working at a local quarry at full pay.

“It’s still jail,” Apple said. “But we want to help them let their guard down a little bit and trust us as we want to trust them.”

The most important piece of the puzzle might be what happens after the veterans are released. Some end up in Soldier On housing; others are followed by caseworkers to make sure they see their probation officer, get drug and alcohol treatment, and have a ride to job interviews.

“Your traditional inmate would get released and get a bus token and say ‘See ya later,’ and more times than not they end up coming back, which drives that recidivism rate right back up,” Apple said.

The pod has room for 30 veterans. Some have spent years in the military; others only weeks. Some have been in trouble just once or twice, while others have rap sheets far longer than their military history.

Charles Brown, 67, estimates he’s spent 22 years of his life locked up. Jail officials said he was one of the more troublesome inmates during past stays; since he’s been in the pod, after yet another drug arrest, he’s been a model prisoner.

“This is like basic training all over again,” Brown said.

Brown was in the Air Force for just five months during the Vietnam War before getting a family-related discharge, but says he was haunted by his time working in a base morgue. Despite the brevity of his military stint, he said he’s bonded with other pod members in ways he did not in the general population.

“We all have something in common besides the criminal element,” he explained.

The Albany County pod eschews military-style activities, but other veteran units around the country have incorporated the trappings of the armed services.

In Florida, which opened dorms at five sites in 2011 to accommodate about 400 men and women, inmates paint patriotic murals and can participate in an honor guard. Washington state paired up one of its three sites with the Brigadoon Service Dogs training program; the inmates built dog houses decorated with military insignia.

Inmates in Florida's veteran dorms paint murals representing the service branches on prison wards.

Inmates in Florida’s veteran dorms paint murals representing the service branches on prison wards.

The Arizona Corrections Department established a work program at a local veterans cemetery and prepares special meals for Veterans Day and Memorial Day. It also opened a veterans’ garden where inmates are working to create a certified way-station for migrating monarch butterflies.

Deputy Warden Dionne Martinez said that 50 inmates have been released since their pod opened a year and a half ago; officials know of only one who has ended up back in custody. Now they are trying to start a program for women.

In Albany, the veteran pod often has unfilled cells. The sheriff wants to offer counties from around the state the opportunity to send veterans to do their time in the Soldier On pod.

The jail has 1,040 beds overall and is one of the largest in the state due to expansion during the crack cocaine explosion of the 1980s and a lock-’em-up approach to drug offenders, Apple said.

“I had that mentality myself,” he added. “But sooner or later, you realize we are not winning the war. We’ve got to do things differently.

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Thank you Blood Brothers!

Soldier On would like to give a HUGE Thank You to the members of the Blood Brothers band.

On Saturday, January 14, 2017 the Blood Brothers band held a benefit concert at Joanna’s Restaurant in Somers, CT on behalf of Soldier On. All proceeds from tickets sales and the various raffles were donated directly to Soldier On. The event raised over $17,500.00. Sponsors of the event include; Bee-Line Corporation, Attorney Bruce E. Devlin of Crear, Chadwell, Dos Santos & Devlin, P.C, Thomas Wilson Enterprises, Inc., JD Rivet & Co., Inc., Maybury Material Handling, Harry Grodsky & Co, Inc. and Forastiere-Smith Funeral Home.

In addition, Rock 102 mid-day host, Dan Williams, graciously MC’d the event. Williams is a former U.S. Marine.

The Band

Blood Brothers Photo
The Blood Brothers were formed in 2013 by Tim Tomko and Bruce Devlin, who are the two lead singers and also play guitar. In 2014, the two more members joined the band, Kim Cole, drummer, and Jeff Sullivan, bass and keys.  The band plays a diverse library of cover music in addition to original songs.

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