News

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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Senator Edward Markey visits Pittsfield

senator-markey-2

Left to Right: Sara Scoco Director of Soldier On Women’s Program , Jack Downing CEO of Soldier On, Senator Edward Markey, Bruce Buckley CFO of Soldier On, State Representative Tricia Farley Bouvier, and State Senator Adam Hinds.

On Saturday, January 7th Senator Edward Markey was in Pittsfield for the Four Freedoms Coalition March and Rally. During his time in town the Senator visited Soldier On  and toured the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community along with Massachusetts State Senator Adam Hinds, State Representative Tricia Farley Bouvier, and Pittsfield City Councilor At-Large Pete White.

Left to Right: John Crane Director of Case Management, Jack Downing CEO, Senator Edward Markey, Jeff Snyder,State Senator Adam Hinds, State Representative Tricia Farley Bouvier, and Pittsfield City Councilor At-Large Pete White.

Left to Right: John Crane Director of Case Management, Jack Downing CEO, Senator Edward Markey, Jeff Snyder,State Senator Adam Hinds, State Representative Tricia Farley Bouvier, and Pittsfield City Councilor At-Large Pete White.

Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community resident, Jeff Snyder, had the opportunity to share his story with the Senator and the rest of the guests when he opened up his condo for a tour.

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Berkshire Bank Announces First Exciting Assists Grant Recipient

$9,600 Grant Benefits Soldier On

PITTSFIELD, MA, December 12, 2016 – Berkshire Bank, America’s Most Exciting Bank®, is excited to announce that its Foundation, in partnership with NESN (New England Sports Network), has awarded a $9,600 grant to Soldier On through the Berkshire Bank Exciting Assists Grant program. Soldier On CFO Bruce Buckley accepted the contribution from Berkshire Bank’s Assistant Vice President of Community Engagement Gary Levante during NESN’s coverage of the Boston Bruins game on December 8.

The Exciting Assists Grant program runs through April 1, 2017 and raises funds to support three charitable causes. Berkshire Bank’s Foundation provides $100 per assist to the program. An assist is defined as a Boston player who shot, passed or deflected the puck towards the scoring teammate, or touched it in any other way which enabled the goal, meaning that they were “assisting” in the goal. During the first portion of the season Boston had 96 assists resulting in the $9,600 grant from Berkshire Bank Foundation.

Soldier On, the first nonprofit beneficiary of the Exciting Assists Grant program, has a single mission; ending homelessness amongst the nation’s veterans. Since 1994, they’ve provided homeless veterans with transitional housing and supportive services including opening the first Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community in 2010, a permanent housing cooperative that provides formerly homeless veterans with safe, sustainable, affordable housing – transitioning them from homelessness to homeownership. Soldier On is replicating this model nationally.

In addition to Soldier On, two other nonprofit organizations will receive funding during the remainder of the season including:

Birthday Wishes – provides children facing homelessness with a joyous birthday party that will brighten their special day, reduce the trauma of homelessness, and give them hope for a better future. Promotion Period: (December 8 – February 3)

Cradles to Crayons – provides children from birth through age 12, living in homeless or low-income situations, with the essential items they need to thrive at home, at school and at play, free of charge by engaging and connecting communities that have communities in need. Promotion Period: (February 4 – March 31)

About Berkshire Bank Foundation

Through foundation grants to nonprofits, scholarships to students, environmental programs, and employee volunteerism, Berkshire Bank is making a difference. Each year the Foundation donates $2 million to nonprofits throughout the Bank’s footprint and employees provide over 40,000 hours of volunteer service. Annually, 100% of the company’s employees participate in their corporate volunteer program, the highest participate rate of any company in the U.S. Berkshire Bank was named one of Massachusetts’ Most Charitable Companies by the Boston Business Journal in 2016. To learn more about Berkshire Bank Foundation, visit www.berkshirebank.com/community.

About Berkshire Bank

Berkshire Hills Bancorp (NYSE: BHLB) is the parent of Berkshire Bank, America’s Most Exciting Bank®. The Company, recognized for its entrepreneurial approach and distinctive culture, has $9 billion in assets and 99 full service branch offices in Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey and Pennsylvania providing personal and business banking, insurance, and wealth management services. To learn more, visit www.berkshirebank.com, call 800-773-5601 or follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Berkshire Bank is the official bank of NESN’s Boston Bruins coverage and the community partner of Boston Season at City Hall Plaza.

About NESN

NESN has consistently been one of the top-rated regional sports networks in the country with award-winning Red Sox and Bruins coverage. The network is delivered to over 4 million homes throughout the six-state New England region and an additional 5 million homes nationally as NESN National on digital and sports tiers in over 100 DMAs. Forbes Magazine recently ranked NESN as the 10th Most Valuable Sports Business Brand in the world. NESN.com is one of the Top 15 sports Web sites in the U.S. and recently launched NESN Fuel, a Web site for automotive enthusiasts. NESN’s social responsibility program, NESN Connects, is proud to support and connect its employees with charitable organizations in our communities. NESN is owned by Fenway Sports Group (owners of the Boston Red Sox) and Delaware North (owners of the Boston Bruins).

Contact: Heidi Higgins
Berkshire Bank
Phone: (413) 236-3756
E-Mail: hhiggins@berkshirebank.com

Vanessa Pesa
Berkshire Bank
Phone: 413-447-1851
E-Mail: vpesa@berkshirebank.com

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Women’s Program Featured in the Hampshire Daily Gazette

Daily Hampshire Gazette | Tuesday, November 29, 2016 | Sarah Crosby

SOLDIERING ON WITH SOLDIER ON: PROGRAM HELPS WOMEN VETERANS BUILD LIVES

Sara Scoco, director of Soldier On Women's Program, left, and Soldier On resident Silva Petrus listen to announcements during a Nov. 17, 2016 house meeting at Soldier On's transitional housing for female veterans on the Veterans Affairs campus in Leeds.

Sara Scoco, director of Soldier On Women’s Program, left, and Soldier On resident Silva Petrus listen to announcements during a Nov. 17, 2016 house meeting at Soldier On’s transitional housing for female veterans on the Veterans Affairs campus in Leeds.

A rocky path led veteran Mary Wilson to the doorstep of the Soldier On Women’s Program. “The gift of desperation,” she calls it.

 

A former U.S. Marine Corps private, Wilson in July moved into the transitional housing program located on the grounds of the VA medical center. After years of struggle, she says, she finally feels like she has a base on which to build a life.

“It’s hard to ask for help, but yet Soldier On is an environment where, honestly, I can ask for help and not feel weak doing it,” she said. “I’m treated like a human being here. I’m not a number filling a bed.”

Soldier On is a private nonprofit organization focused on ending homelessness among veterans. The group has been offering services to all veterans — including women — since 1994. But in more recent years, they have emphasized programming that caters specifically to the needs of female veterans.

For those veterans, the 16-bedroom house provides a place to heal from wounds inflicted not just by the nation’s enemies but, too often, by fellow soldiers. Surrounded by a caring staff and female veterans carrying similar scars, Wilson and others begin to find their way.

A dream shattered

Wilson, a spunky 29-year-old most recently donning neon blue hair, joined the Marine Corps when she was 20 and celebrated her 21st birthday in military training. As demanding as it was, she felt like she’d found her niche.

She joined to escape “a life that was going nowhere,” said Wilson, who grew up in East Longmeadow. Stuck in a post-high school rut, she found herself experimenting with cocaine and involved in a relationship that was mutually abusive.

“I figured that if I was going to get my ass kicked, I might as well get paid for it,” she said of her choice to enlist. At first, she struggled to get clean in order to qualify but was eventually able to do so.

In the Marines, Wilson found the mental and physical challenges she had been looking for. Her squadron, which was based at Cherry Point, N.C. but sometimes deployed to Arizona, was responsible for loading and unloading bombs from jets.

“For once in my life, I had to study,” she said. “It wasn’t just ‘Things blow up and go boom.’ There’s actually a math and a science; a rhyme and a reason to everything,” Wilson said.

But less than two years later, that new-found promise was cut short.

Wilson says she was sexually assaulted by a male superior in the Marines, after experiencing what she described as endless “sick, graphic and mean” communications — text messages, voicemails and emails.

“There were red flags ahead of time” she said in an interview, her eyes growing hollow.

Her boss would sometimes cut her shifts short, insist on buying her drinks at military outings and walk her back to her barracks alone.

Wilson said she knew something was wrong, but didn’t press the issue because she didn’t want to upset him and, consequently, jeopardize her career.

“He has a crush on me, it isn’t going to go anywhere,” she told herself. But then the officer began sending everyone else home early so he and Wilson would be left alone.

“One night he wanted yes, I wanted no, and that was the first time,” she said of the first time she was raped. Wilson said the assault occurred two more times over the course of a month.

By the last time, Wilson couldn’t look at herself. She decided to run.

“I got in my car and I drove. And I just drove and I drove and I drove — (11-plus hours) straight back to Massachusetts,” she said. After roughly 20 days, she decided to return and face the situation.

When she arrived, she couldn’t bring herself to drive onto the Cherry Point base.

“I must have circled 100 times,” Wilson recalled. When the questions came about where she’d been, she turned over her phone, with all the messages, to management.

Rather than providing support, Wilson said, her fellow Marines called her a “lying b****,” for “disrespecting and disgracing a decorated Marine with a family.”

That began her discharge process.

The Judge Advocate General’s Corps made a deal with Wilson that, if she testified against her assaulter, they’d make sure her record showed a general discharge under honorable conditions.

She accepted. But the troubles didn’t end.

Wilson said some of her peers, whom she had previously considered friends, stopped talking to her. For the next several months, she was instructed to sit on a chair outside her ordnance shop during working hours.

Wilson was eventually discharged, but had to return to testify at a court martial on her birthday – Feb. 15, 2011. She found a death threat on her car and listened as some of her friends testified against her, she recalled.

Still, the man who had assaulted her was found guilty, she said.

When Wilson returned to Massachusetts following court, she says, she lost it.

She tried therapy, but couldn’t bring herself to talk about the traumatic experience. Instead, she turned back to drugs — this time, “grabbing onto it with everything,” she said.

“If I didn’t have drugs, I probably would have killed myself,” she said.

Wilson found herself in a downward spiral. She developed a heavy Percocet habit; sometimes turning an entire $2,000 paycheck in one day to purchase the drug.

She asked her parents for help and began signing over her paychecks to them to curb her spending. When they thwarted her attempts to buy drugs, she said she began “stealing anything that wasn’t bolted down in their house.”

As the months passed, Wilson found herself in a serious car accident involving alcohol, addicted to heroin, and smuggling guns for gang members.

“Anything I could make money on, I did,” she said.

Her father, concerned for his daughter’s well-being, used a Massachusetts law known as Section 35 to have her involuntarily committed. Section 35 “permits the courts to involuntarily commit someone whose alcohol or drug use puts themselves or others at risk,” according to Mass.Gov.

The first time she was picked up by authorities in East Longmeadow and sent to a treatment facility for 20-plus days. Wilson was released, and began using heroin that same day. Her father filed for her to be committed, again.

The second time Wilson was hospitalized, she said she was facing warrants for drug-fueled behavior such as receiving stolen property, check fraud and breaking and entering. She agreed to go to a halfway house in Springfield to avoid jail time — but, after a month, left the program.

The scenario played out again and again, worsening each time.

She was living in a tent, having violated probation, when she was arrested and sent to the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee in 2014. She served multiple stints of jail time there during the next year, exchanging some time for inpatient treatment and, each time she was released, failing to check in with a probation officer.

Sara Scoco, the director of the women’s program at Soldier On, visited Wilson in jail at the plea of her father.

“She told me to f*** off,” Scoco said. Wilson said she told Scoco to save the bed for somebody who wanted it.

Finding safe haven

The Soldier On Women’s Program is a complex operation focused on giving female veterans back their sense of control.

Scoco said veteran women are four times more likely to become homeless due to challenges faced in accessing services, a tendency to isolate themselves and, often dealing with the aftermath of sexual trauma.

“The VA is an extremely male-dominated arena,” she said. “It’s often assumed when a woman walks in that she’s the sister of, the wife of, the daughter of a veteran. Not the veteran herself. That’s unacceptable and we need to change that.”

Soldier On seeks to fill this gap for female veterans through a variety of programming, such as one-on-one meetings with clinicians and social workers, goal-setting and self esteem groups, employment and educational opportunities, alcohol and substance abuse programs and wellness, fitness and art therapy classes.

Scoco estimates roughly 80 percent of the house residents have experienced military sexual trauma and have not been able to address that until arriving at the Soldier On Women’s Program, which is run by a female staff.

Assisting the women in making connections to their communities outside Soldier On is also of big emphasis for the staff.

“We’re helping to link them to all the services they might not have known existed,”Scoco said, adding that many veterans are not VA-eligible when they arrive but are when they leave. “The ultimate goal is getting them back into the community, and what that looks like is different for everyone.”

But in order for the program to be successful, Scoco said, the women must be ready to make a change.

Ready to rebuild

After two years of running from the law, Wilson decided she was ready to make that change.

In the winter of 2016 she was prostituting herself and living with a client, when she decided to turn herself in to authorities.

“I was just so sick of living, feeling dirty every day and the things I had to do,” she said.

Her sister had reached out around that time with a request to cook Wilson dinner — in her own home — as a celebration of her birthday.

The gesture came at a time when Wilson had come to feel that no one trusted her. It had a deep impact on her, she said.

“I just kept hearing ‘stop running, stop running,’” Wilson said of that day. “Even in receipts and newspapers, I couldn’t see any words besides ‘stop running.’”

She called her father on a Friday and promised to turn herself in that Monday, if he’d come pick her up. He did.

That weekend, father and daughter both met with Soldier On. Wilson planned to request parole so she could move to the transitional housing program after a year in jail.

But while awaiting trial in the Chicopee jail, Wilson was offered an alternative to incarceration.

The Western Massachusetts Veterans Treatment Court, a specialty court based in Holyoke, offered her 18 months of active participation in conjunction with recovery at Soldier On, instead of serving her time in a jail cell.

“It’s really more about building them up than it is penalizing them,” said Scoco of the treatment court.

After just four months of jail time and a few months of inpatient recovery, Wilson moved into her new home at Soldier On.

During a recent visit to veterans court, Wilson took the stand and spoke of her recovery process to the judge and other participants. Tears filled her eyes.

“I didn’t think it was possible,” she said, citing the nine-plus months she’s been sober and clean.

“For the first time in her life, something’s clicking,” Scoco said of Wilson’s success in a later interview. “Something’s working.”

Long-term challenge

While most veterans stay at Soldier On for one to two years, some women there need longer-term support, Scoco said.

LouAnn Hazelwood, 61, has lived there off and on since 2012. Soldier On offered her a place to belong after she left an abusive marriage of nearly two decades.

Hazelwood, a U.S. Army veteran who enlisted in 1976, says she suffered sexual trauma both in and out of the military.

At 21, she saw the military as a way to escape what she called “a very dysfunctional household.”

“I used to ride my bike around the Holiday Inn, looking at all the different license plates and thinking about what it would be like to go (to them),” she said.

But she did not find that safe place with the Army. When she arrived at Soldier On decades later, Hazelwood did not even speak. She was full of fear from her traumatic past.

“There was a time I didn’t even feel comfortable in my own skin,” she said.

But, Hazelwood adds, “I don’t feel that way, anymore.”

She, too, has flourished with the program.

Hazelwood now sings in a local church choir, crochets pieces for her housemates and community members, volunteers and makes paintings — many of which have been showcased at regional organizations.

Scoco and Hazelwood agree that, in order to continue doing well, she will always need some kind of structure in her life. To solve this issue for her, and others, Soldier On is in the initial stages of planning eight to 10 units of permanent housing for female veterans, to be located in Pittsfield.

“Some women go out into the community and, in six or eight months, they’re relapsing,” Scoco said. “Right now, (the long-term housing) is the missing piece.”

A happy surprise

Wilson and her peers, including Hazelwood, will soon embark on a new journey together — on a path not yet forged by Soldier On. In approximately six months, the house will welcome Wilson’s newborn child, their youngest resident by far.

The pregnancy came as a surprise to both Wilson and the house members.

At first, she was scared and questioned her suitability to become a parent. But the more she sat with the idea, it seemed to her that there might be a reason she was pregnant.

“Once I heard the baby’s heartbeat, for the first time, it was ‘game on,’” she said. The child’s father is also a veteran.

So far, Wilson’s pregnancy has only motivated her further to work on her recovery.

“It’s not about me,” she said. “If I mess up, it’s going to affect this kid.”

Scoco said that, although Soldier On has never taken on a new baby, she’s thrilled to offer Wilson support when she needs it most.

“It’s probably not the best time in the world for her to be pregnant, but she is,” Scoco said. “So we’re going to help her deal with it.”

Wilson’s housemates have also rallied to celebrate the new life growing inside her. Scoco is confident that the women in the house will make a positive impact on the baby.

“The hurt they’ve been through runs so deep that they can just nurture and support one another like I’ve never seen before,” she said.

In several weeks, the ladies will be throwing a gender party to reveal the baby’s sex to the expecting mother.

“There’s a sisterhood here that is nowhere else,” Wilson said.

But the staff are the ones who make recovery possible, according to her.

“They jump through hoopsof fire, for me,” she said of Scoco and wellness director Stephanie Ovitt. “They move mountains. My dream is just a dream without them.”

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TD Charitable Foundation – Bring Change Campaign

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Soldier On was privileged enough to be the beneficiary of the TD Bank November Bring Change program at their West Street and Merrill Road store locations in Pittsfield, MA.

The program ran from November 1st-18th. On Friday, November 18th Soldier On was presented with a $5,580.00 donation from the campaign. Residents and staff from Soldier On went to the West Street location to accept the donation.

TD Bank through its charitable giving arm, the TD Charitable Foundation carries a legacy of supporting non-profit organizations. Since its inception in 202, the foundation has contributed over $160 million in grant funding to organizations in the communities where TD works, lives, and does business.

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2016 Veterans Day Weekend

Soldier On was busy during the weekend of Veterans Day.  Below is a recap of the various events that Soldier On participated in.

Friday November 11th

Massachusetts
Friday morning Soldier On staff and residents walked in the Pittsfield and Northampton Parades.

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Pittsfield – Veterans Day Parade

Northampton – Veterans Day Parade

 

 

Soldier On’s kitchen held a prime-rib lunch at the West Housatonic Street location in Pittsfield. In addition the kitchen partook in Springside Rehabilitation & Skilled Care Center‘s Chili Cook-Off. Local restaurants participated in the cook-off: Friends Grille, Hot Dog Ranch, Matt Reilly’s Pub, Patrick’s Pub, PortSmitt’s Lakeway, Zucchini’s Restaurant, and Zuke’s Soups and Variety. The winners were: 1st Place Kim Brophy, 2nd Sprinside, 3rd Soldier On.  All proceeds raised were donated to Soldier On.

 

 

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Left to Right: Soldier On Resident Louann, Women’s Director Sara Scoco, and Soldier On Resident Corinne

Friday afternoon Soldier On former and current residents; Kevin, Russell, Louann, and Corinne spoke at Norman Rockwell Museum’s Veterans Day: Afloat and Ashore: Rockwell’s Soldiers.

 

 

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Friday evening Sarah Polidore and Casey DiCicco attended a veterans resource fair at Westfield State University. The fair was held prior to the football game against Western Connecticut State University. In addition to it being military appreciation night it was also senior night.

 

 

Mississippi

SSVF staff Barbara Parker-Thornton, Preston Williams, Greg Morgan, Robert Payne, Sheron Brown-Gorden, Alvin Buckley, Margaret Johnson and Michael Cohen served Veterans Day lunch to the participants in the Soldier On Statewide Incarcerated Veterans Program at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Mississippi.

Additionally, Alvin Buckley participated in the annual Veterans Day Liberty Luncheon at the Vicksburg Convention Center in Vicksburg.

 

 

New Jersey

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Left to Right: Jill Lombardozzi, Jose Bracero, Traci Herrman and Jennifer Marshall

On Friday evening SSVF staff  Jill Lombardozzi, Jose Bracero, Traci Herrman and Jennifer Marshall attended the GI Go Fund Veterans Day Gala in Newark.

 

 

Saturday, November 12th

Massachusetts
Raymour & Flanigan in West Springfield presented Soldier On with a $500 check from their Community Event Outreach Program. In addition the store held a raffle where a $5 donation to Soldier On would allow the customer to be entered into a drawing for a $200.00 gift certificate to Raymour & Flanigan. Soldier On staffed a table during the peak shopping hours on Saturday; Sarah Polidore and Casey DiCicco worked in the morning while Sabrina Willard and Netshari Ortiz worked in the afternoon.

 

 

New York

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Chris Shortell and Ilian Galan

The 9th Annual Central New York Veterans Parade and Expo was held on Saturday. CNY SSVF staff William Brown, Ilian Galan, and Chris Shortell attended the expo which was in the Center of Progress Building in Syracuse.

 

 

Jessica Brooks & Meadow McDowell

Jessica Brooks & Meadow McDowell

Seneca County Veterans Service Agency hosted “Stand Down 2016” at the VFW in Waterloo where Jessica Brooks and Meadow McDowell set up a table at the event.

 

 

Sunday, November 13th 

Massachusetts
The American Legion Women’s Auxiliary Unit #155 in Dalton held their annual Veterans Dinner Dance.  In addition to Soldier On residents attending the following staff were present: Sam Bennett, Sandi Lussier (her husband was in attendance), Steve Como, and Sarah Polidore (her husband was in attendance).

 

New York

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Albany County Sheriff’s Office presented Soldier On with the Patriotism Recognition Award at the Siena College men’s basketball game against Cornell University. Dominick Sondrini, New York SSVF Supervisor, accepted the award and spoke on behalf of Soldier On. Prior to the game Katrina Middleton set up a table providing information on Soldier On in the main concourse of the Times Union Center.

 

 

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