Fox News features Soldier On’s CEO John F. Downing in Veteran editorial

A report issued a few days ago by Senators John Flake and John McCain found that the Pentagon has spent nearly $7 million to pay for patriotic displays during the games of professional sports teams.

Since 2012, the Pentagon entered into 72 contracts with the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer just so that veterans and members of the military could be “honored” in front of large crowds by throwing out the first pitch, unfurling giant flags across stadium turfs, and singing “God Bless America.”

This “paid patriotism” is a revolting affront to all of those who have donned the uniforms of our country’s Armed Services and fought to preserve the freedoms and ideals we enjoy and cherish.

It is also a repulsive insult to all of us taxpayers; it’s our dollars that have gone into footing the bill for what amounts to nothing more than a marketing ploy designed to enrich the coffers of the already super rich sports franchises.

It comes as no surprise that holidays such as Veterans Day, which was created nearly 100 years ago by President Woodrow Wilson to celebrate the heroism of our troops who fought in World War I, are now more about celebrating huge discounts at the local mall and days off from work and school.

At the same time, such wanton capitalism is indicative of a much wider societal problem impacting our military and veterans communities. Indeed, there is a near total disconnect between the safe and secure lives we lead as civilians and the unsafe and insecure lives led by the men and women of our nation’s military. Consider that less than one percent of our population currently serves in the Armed Forces compared to more than 12 percent during World War II. Moreover, only 5 percent of us have a direct connection to someone currently in the military.

It comes as no surprise therefore how holidays such as Veterans Day, which was created nearly 100 years ago by President Woodrow Wilson to celebrate the heroism of our troops who fought in World War I, are more about celebrating huge discounts at the local mall and days off from work and school.

Think about all those corporations and retailers big and small that fly the American flag to demonstrate their patriotism on Veterans Day. Not nearly enough of them actually demonstrate this patriotism in the most tangible ways, by providing both financial and human capital on the ground.

Think about how many companies that run massive advertising campaigns touting Veterans Day sales actually donate a percentage of proceeds from those sales to veteran service organizations?

Think about how many companies that proudly proclaim that they hire veterans actually provide these men and women with meaningful, rather than menial, employment?

According to the findings of a 2014 member survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization, about one-third said that their current position was inappropriate given their level of education and experience. Other studies have found that that veterans’ under-employment is as high as 26% more than non-veterans.

Now think about the fact that, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are almost 50,000 veterans who are homeless and 1.4 million at-risk of becoming homeless due to poverty, lack of support networks, and substandard living conditions each and every day in America.

A highly significant number of these veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, while nearly 50 percent of the homeless veteran population experiences mental health issues. These are veterans who put on a uniform and swore they would die for us. Many of them have returned from the battlefield, but never really truly returned from battle.

They have endured the sleepless nights and harrowing experiences of homelessness and have lost touch with their families, finding their solace in drugs and alcohol and, statistics show, spending nine times the length of their deployment homeless.

Perhaps the most fragile of our at-risk veteran population is women. Estimates go as high as 10,000 women veterans on the street on any given night.

The primary issue our nation’s daughters report upon their return home is PTSD, and due to physiological and psychological differences in the sexes, our VA is not equipped to properly treat these women.

Only slightly more than half of the 500 VA-run homeless shelters accept women and few, if any, accept children.

Very few programs are specifically tailored to female veterans and they typically lack separate quarters from men.

Importantly, some 31 percent of VA medical centers aren’t able or equipped to provide necessary services for military sexual trauma, which one out of every five women veterans experience.

Through the efforts of the Veterans Administration in partnership with HUD and other government entities and non-government organizations nationwide, including Soldier On, where I serve as CEO, veteran homelessness has decreased by more than 33 percent since 2010. A number of major cities, including Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and New York have announced they have achieved or will achieve “functional zero” on their homeless veteran population by the New Year.

We have been able to attain success thus far through a continuum of care process that integrates the resources of federal programs with a network of local and state agencies committed to the same goal.

The HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) has served over 90,000 veterans since the program’s inception, providing housing and other services for the most vulnerable, chronically homeless, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

The VA’s Grant Per Diem program, which supports transitional housing for homeless veterans and literally takes them off the streets, served about 45,000 veterans in 2014 with another 45,000 expected to benefit in 2015. These programs have been effective in reaching homeless veterans and placing them on the road to reclaiming their dignity and lives.

Soldier On is the largest provider in the country of another largely effective program funded by the VA, Supportive Service for Veteran Families (SSVF), which has made a profound difference in ensuring that homeless and at-risk veterans and their families have access to the resources they need to successfully transition to permanent housing.

Our SSVF program encompasses rapid-rehousing along with an array of services, including temporary financial assistance, employment and benefit counseling, case management, and transportation.

Our success with the SSVF program — which we now operate in five states, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi — is largely due to a real-time delivery model in which we maintain a fleet of vehicles fully equipped with computers and other communications technology that allows us to reach a veteran or veteran-at-risk in a matter of hours.

Our program is also reinforced by our interconnection with state and local agencies, which assist in providing housing, employment, and other vital services for the veterans.

But relying upon federal funding can be a tricky venture, and the government can’t do it alone. There still needs to be a comprehensive strategy to not only sustain current activities but also to meet the challenges of the future in meeting the ultimate goal of ending veteran homelessness.

The VA needs to fully partner with academic medical centers, research universities and boots-on-the-ground nonprofits engaging these forgotten veterans and servicing them in an all-inclusive way that treats them as dynamic human beings deserving of dignity and respect.

Mental health services, substance-abuse treatment, case management, peer support, medical and dental treatment, legal assistance employment, and educational services should all be part of a matrix of supportive services enveloping the whole individual.

And I would argue that America’s business community needs to be an active partner in all efforts. We can start by having all those sports teams that have greatly benefited from the “generosity” of the Pentagon re-allocate these ill-gotten gains for the benefit of our homeless veterans.

We have reached a watershed moment in our history, one in which we have the awareness, technology, the means, and the determination to end veterans homelessness. This Veterans Day, as we celebrate and honor those who have served our country with parades and other programs, it is imperative that we look beyond the pomp and pageantry to treat our homeless veterans. We can’t drop the ball now.

John F. Downing is chief executive officer of Soldier On, the largest provider of housing and services to homeless veterans east of the Mississippi and the largest provider of Supportive Services for Veteran Families in the country.


Soldier On Receives $300,000 To Provide Services For Formerly Incarcerated Veterans

The federal Department of Labor has awarded a $300,000 grant to Soldier On to provide employment and housing services to formerly incarcerated veterans in Eastern New York and Western Massachusetts.

DOL announced the award as part of $1.8 million in grants it funded nationally under its Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program, which targets those veterans considered at risk of becoming homeless.

“Everyone deserves a second chance, especially the men and women who have sacrificed for our country,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “The Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program opens doors for veterans who may have struggled but who want to return to America’s workforce.”

Soldier On currently serves 18 counties in Eastern New York and four counties in Western Massachusetts, largely through its Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant program from the Department of Veterans Affairs. It also provides 40 hours of weekly programming at the Albany (NY) County Correctional Facility aimed at reducing recidivism and preparing veterans to assimilate back into society.  The DOL grant will enhance services to these veterans and others who are released from imprisonment and who are located in Eastern New York and Western Massachusetts.

Soldier On initiated its incarcerated veterans program at the Albany jail in October 2014 in collaboration with Sheriff Craig D. Apple.  Programming includes instruction in appropriate disciplines, such as anger management, physical and mental health, substance abuse, self-discipline, and social skills.

“This DOL grant will allow Soldier On, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, and our outreach team in Western Massachusetts and Eastern New York to provide job training, education and job readiness for veterans who are leaving incarceration and returning to life in the community,” said John F. Downing, CEO of Soldier On. “We are grateful to the DOL to allow us to partner with them to serve this special group of veterans with these services.”

“Honoring the sacrifice and service of our nation’s veterans starts with helping them succeed when they return home,” Congressman Jim McGovern (MA-02) said. “With this program, struggling veterans will get the second chance they need as they work to get back on their feet. Giving our veterans the support they need to find a good job and put a roof over their head is the least we can do. This program will make a tremendous difference for veterans in our communities and across the country. I am proud to join Secretary Perez as a partner in this important work and look forward to seeing all the good these grants will do for our veterans.”


Opinion: Rethinking The Delivery Of Veterans’ Benefits – By John F. Downing

With the Department of Veterans Affairs slowly imploding financially, and burdened with a bloated bureaucracy capable of serving only about one third of our veterans, it is time for new ideas and new systems to ensure all our veterans get the care and benefits they have earned. To accomplish this, access to benefits and health care needs to be improved.

In its struggle to achieve financial stability with a looming $3 billion shortfall, the VA has been shifting funds and cutting back on expenses while warning Congress that the demand for services will continue to climb as it has during the past year. Much of the increased demand is being driven by the cost of outside doctors, which veterans can now choose to see through the new “”Veterans Choice Program” if they cannot get a VA appointment within 30 days.

Accordingly, the VA says its waiting lists of one month or more have increased by 50 percent over the last year when the problems plaguing the agency first came to light. The VA has hired more doctors and nurses and expanded access to care, but the number of veterans seeking care has multiplied beyond expectations.

We are seeing that throwing taxpayer funds at an agency with a bloated bureaucracy won’t work. I believe we have to simplify the process and work together with the VA and other agencies in easing access to benefits and health care so that we can reach 100 percent of our veterans. One solution is a computerized benefit card that allows every veteran to have all benefits and health needs listed in one account.


At Soldier On, when a case manager goes out into the community to meet with a homeless veteran, one of the first things they do to begin the road to permanent housing is to ensure that the veteran has applied for and is receiving all due benefits. If not, it can be a cumbersome and time-consuming process going agency to agency with the veteran to register. But it needs to be done because it is a necessary step to ensure that our veterans are able to get the services they need so they can get back on their feet for good.

With an automated benefit card, every veteran who files with the Internal Revenue Service would receive one identification card listing all the veteran’s benefits and medical needs, whether it be pharmaceutical, psych/social, or financial. It would eliminate the need to register for everything, to be at the VA constantly, and to drive to various medical centers and social service agencies. It would also bring consistency and a bit more dignity  to the whole system of medical and financial benefits for veterans.

The beauty of this system is that it allows every veteran to access his or her benefits all day, every day, eliminates embedded barriers, and facilitates the timely deliverance of benefits. Veterans in need of services would receive their needed support promptly, without many of the delays and encumbrances that come with the current system.

When a veteran puts on a uniform, he or she is saying that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for us if necessary. They deserve the best care and attention we can provide.


Soldier On’s Nathan Hanford Named To Berkshire Magazine’s Top “25 Of 2015”


Nathan Hanford, artist in residence for Soldier On, was recently chosen to be among Berkshire Magazine’s “The Berkshire 25” for 2015.

Hanford was honored with other award winners at a reception held at The Mount in Lenox, MA on August 28.

This is Berkshire Magazine’s second year of honoring a “select” group of individuals for their work in improving and enhancing the Berkshires, which the magazine characterizes as the most dedicated, most creative and most influential persons in their fields. The Berkshire 25 “touch upon the various elements of the Berkshires that make us unique, and they work to improve and enhance our home and its diverse features,” the magazine stated in announcing the winners.

Candidates were nominated by readers via Berkshire Magazine’s website and winners were chosen by a panel of advisers. Hanford was honored for helping veterans recover from physical and emotional trauma at Soldier On and using his abilities to “go above and beyond.”

“It is his full-time work as artist in residence and case manager of Soldier On that is really admired by locals,” Berkshire Magazine stated.

Nathan has been a member of the Soldier On staff since October 2013. A multi-skilled artist, Nathan has been able to inspire participation in his group through a flexible arts curriculum in which he brings materials used by the veterans to explore various disciplines of their choice, from painting and drawing to woodcraft and embroidery. Through exercising their creativity, Nathan believes veterans and others can become better equipped to combat the daily struggles of life.


Jim Croasmun

Jim Croasmun is a very familiar face at Soldier On, and frequently can be seen in the med room window in Building 6 handing out pills to residents.

It is a job he has held as a resident staff for the past nine years, indicating he is quite reliable at handing out the right meds in the proper dosage to the right person. It was a job handed to him just a few months after he arrived at Soldier On in January 2006, when the agency was called the United Veterans of America.

Jim attributes his longevity at Soldier On to having a job he likes and the sense of contentment he has attained while residing here.

A native of Erie, PA, where he lived the first 23 years of his life (he is now 60) before moving to Florida, working in construction and maintenance jobs. It was on September 25, 2004 that his life changed.

On that day, Hurricane Jeanne, the deadliest hurricane of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season, blew into Palm Bay, FL, where Jim had his house. Housesitting for a friend at the time, Jim says that when he came home, “there was just a pile of rubble, the whole neighborhood was gone.”

Jim moved to Melbourne to stay with a friend, who eventually decided to sell his house, giving Jim a two-week notice. His next move was to Chesterfield, MA, where his friend had become acquainted with some friends on the internet. That didn’t last long, and those friends referred Jim to a shelter on Center Street in Northampton.

“I remember waiting four hours in the cold for the shelter to open at 6 a.m.,” Jim says.

The shelter required everyone to leave at 6 a.m. and return at 6 p.m. He found a job shoveling snow for $14 an hour, but it was a mild winter and it snowed infrequently. When the shelter experienced an overflow, Jim ended up at another shelter in Easthampton.  Jim was not there long because he ran into Willie Ledbetter, the outreach coordinator for the UVA, who determined Jim was eligible to reside there.

At the time, case managers handed out meds. But Jim was a good candidate for the job because, as a rule, he doesn’t use drugs or imbibe alcohol.

“I don’t take pills, I don’t like drinking, but I do smoke cigarettes and coffee is my choice of drug,” Jim says.

Jim was approved for the job by the Life Team, started training as a resident staff on April 17, 2006 and officially started on April 23.

He’s been here ever since, and looks forward to his duties as a resident staff at Soldier On.

“I enjoy helping people,” he says.


Governor Charlie Baker Visits Soldier On During “Spotlight on Excellence” Tour

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PITTSFIELD: During a visit to western Massachusetts over the weekend, Governor Charlie Baker and members of his administration met with veterans and staff at Solider On’s housing and care facility in Pittsfield.

After touring campus apartments, Governor Charlie Baker sat down with area veterans at Soldier On’s transitional housing and homeless shelter. With a mission of ending veteran homelessness, CEO Jack Downing recalled the saying that changed his vision was that every American service member who put on the uniform made a pledge to die for the country.

“I was running a program at the time in 2002 that housed veterans in a shelter and thought used clothing and standing in lines for food was acceptable,” Downing said. “When I finally heard ‘I will die for you’ I realized they deserve to have everything I want for my family.”

The 39 units at Soldier On’s Gordon Mansfield Veterans Community operate under a model allowing a veteran to own his or her apartment. Downing says the non-profit has found that veterans who have experienced homelessness or addiction feel safe and secure in communities with fellow veterans.

“What we call the ‘virus’ in our community…people say ‘How do people get better here?’ and we say ‘You got to give them the flu,’” Downing said. “How do you get the flu? You’re around people who are sick you get sick. That’s what we do here. We say you’re around people who are sober and living good lives, you’re going to get the virus and you’re going to get better.”

Downing says they plan to open similar units in Northampton, Agawam, Chicopee, Albany, Jackson, Mississippi and at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Francisco Urena is Massachusetts new secretary of veterans’ services. The 34-year-old spent eight years in the Marine Corps and has a Purple Heart for injuries suffered when deployed to Iraq.

“I don’t belong behind a desk,” Urena said. “I belong in the community engaging with our leaders to insure that we are accountable to services, to families and more importantly to our veterans to bring them what they need to succeed. We shouldn’t be holding them back.”

Governor Baker says he will be constantly asking Urena and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash how Massachusetts can expand programs like Soldier On.

“The problem with the way a lot of stuff in government works is you got services over here and you got housing over here,” Baker said. “This distance in between might as well be a country mile or 100 miles. So what ends up happening of course is the people who need the services over here would decompose because they couldn’t get to them because the shelter they were in was over here. They’d end up in the hospital and ER here there and everywhere.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 370,000 veterans live in the Bay State. Urena says the main issue for his agency is not a lack of resources, but making people aware of and helping them access available aid.

“Ending homelessness is not just providing the home to folks it’s providing the community, the jobs and the services to be able to assist them,” Urena said. “Not creating new services or adding more it’s connecting the existing services that we have and being able to deliver them in an accountable manner.”

Governor Baker’s visit to the area days after being sworn in was meaningful for Dave Hastings, the superintendent of Southern Berkshire Regional School District and an Army veteran.

“His being here in the Berkshires sets a great tone, but even more importantly his being here to support veterans and trying to eliminate homelessness within the veteran community,” Hastings said. “If that sets a tone for his term I think that’ll be absolutely great.”

Jim Levulis, WAMC Northeast Public Radio
January 12, 2015
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Life Enhancement Program

Like many homeless veterans, James Williams had hit what he called a “bottomless pit.” He had seen it all. Aside from homelessness, his many medical maladies were catching up with him as he got older, including diabetes, early stages of emphysema, and a heart condition. James, 60, says he got involved with drugs from a young age, but eventually got married and had five children. The marriage dissolved with the same kind of behaviors and attitudes that come with drug addiction, and he found himself in a downward spiral.

While participating in an outreach program at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, he met a representative from Soldier On, where he now resides. Being at Soldier On, he says, allowed him to focus on his addiction and, importantly, his health. “If I had continued the way I was, I would have ended up dying in prison,” James says. “I didn’t want to do that to my grandchildren because I wanted to be in their lives.” To that end, James was one of three veterans in Soldier On’s Pittsfield facility to enroll in the Berkshire Health Systems Canyon Ranch Institute’s Life Enhancement Program. Life Enhancement is an intense weekly program for committed individuals who want to address their chronic diseases by changing their life by focusing on four dimensions of health: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. By taking an active part in his recovery, James said he has found a better way to deal with his illnesses through the program by diet, exercise, nutrition, and gaining a deeper understanding of his conditions.

James said his health has improved considerably since enrolling in the program. “I had been told that I was a stroke waiting to happen,” James says. “When the opportunity came along to do this program, I said why not get involved in something that will better me in the long run and put me on a track to better health and attitude.”

James was joined in the Life Enhancement Program by fellow veterans Kevin Counter and Chip Mantz. Kevin, 48, who served in the Army from 1990-98, was being kept back from serving overseas because of his Crohn’s Disease, which was diagnosed in 1991. When his disease worsened, he was eventually given a medical retirement.

Sick with Crohn’s and waiting for his VA claim to come through, Kevin found himself fighting alcohol and drug addiction because of his tendency at the time to self-medicate. He also lost his job because he was often sick and he eventually became homeless. The VA Medical Center in Leeds, where Kevin was receiving his primary care, steered him to Soldier On.

Kevin was prompted to participate in the Life Enhancement Program to learn more about his disease and manage it better. What he has learned, he says, is that his symptoms are definitely associated with nutrition and exercise, which he has improved upon, while also finding ways to reduce stress, which is another contributing factor with Crohn’s. Taking active role through the Life Enhancement Program has helped him to better deal with the disease and relieve his symptoms, he says.

Chip Mantz, who served in the U.S. Navy nine years, has 23 years of sobriety to his credit. After losing his job and his apartment, Chip became homelesss in his home town of Allentown, PA.

Chip went to the VA for homeless services and they gave him a choice to go to either San Diego or to Massachusetts to Soldier On for placement.

“I had a car that wouldn’t make it as far as Mississippi,” Chip says. “So my choice was clear.”

The head of case management at Soldier On, John Crane, urged Chip to enroll in the Life  Enhancement Program to deal with his weight and other issues. He has had perfect attendance since.

“I’m learning good stuff,” Chip says. “The program is helping me to zero in on what is healthy and not healthy to eat and what kind of exercise I should be involved in.”

The Berkshire Health System’s Canyon Ranch Institute offers its programming typically in low-income or medically underserved communities, and helps individuals to change their life. James Williams, Kevin Counter and Chip Mantz can attest to that.


Soldier On Supporter Steve Vilot of Sim’s Barber Shop Does Lollapalooza


Festival season means a lot more than visual art on the stage and screen. Street style at festivals gets nearly as much hype as the artists themselves, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t take the opportunity to scope out the coolest bits of inspiration at Lollapalooza 2014.

In the Arists Village of Lolla, bands, solo artists and DJs relax before and after their time on stage. This year, Andis and Barber Authority saw an opportunity to make artists’ downtime relaxing and productive by hosting a barbering tent.

Barber Authority is a group of more than 50 barbers led by Master Barber Steve Vilot of Sim’s Salon and Barber Shop in Great Barrington, MA. The group goes to various events around the country—music and film festivals, X games, and educational events to name a few—to bestow the gift of barbering on artists, athletes and attendees.

Andis Company sponsored the first-ever Lollapalooza Barber Authority tent with tools, towels and supplies to ensure everyone who entered the tent left looking clean-cut.

Vilot pointed out that events like this are great opportunities for his team as well as for the artists; many of them simply lack the time on tours to keep up with maintainingtheir hair.

Particularly cool and interesting was the amount of women popping in the tent for intricate undercut designs. The barbering team proved to be both meticulous and highly creative.

The cool, vintage barber chairs (a private collection from a local barber) and friendly fellows at the Barber Authority tent ensured artists looked and felt their best before going on stage. Three of the barbers were local to Chicago, and the rest were part of the traveling Barber Authority team.

For festivalgoers who wanted even more than the expansive event that is Lollapalooza, Hard Rock Hotel Chicago hosted The Sound of Your Stay Music Lounge across the street from Grant Park with live music, stations to charge devices, drinks and—what we were most interested in—a Red 7 Salon stylist room with a braid bar.

If a festival happens in the summer and there are no braids, did it even really happen? We think not!

The three stylist chairs were scarcely empty; festival patrons as well as performers took a moment to take a load off and get pretty much whatever they wanted done—plus a hand massage.

Some men got trims, and many women had their hair braided or curled with flowers tucked into their locks. Between the air conditioning, cool and vibrant environment, and pampering, this was a great place to relax and enjoy an exclusive experience.

Excuse us while we start our Lollapalooza 2015 countdown…–Music-Lollapalooza-2014-270000191.html

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