Saturday, July 3, 2010

Veterans finding hope in VA program

Saturday, July 3, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Inside a ground-level room at the Pittsburgh Veteran Affairs Recovery Center, five strangers -- three men and two women -- sit around a conference table.

They share a pot of coffee, stories and at least one thing in common.

All are military veterans, battling a number of post-war problems with hope, thanks in large part to a unique Veterans Affairs program at the 2-year-old VA Domiciliary Residential Rehabilitation & Treatment Program in O'Hara.

"I owe my life to this place," said one.

"I'm a whole new person after coming here," said another.

The program is a residential retreat for veterans who lack a permanent residence and have an income of less than $900 a month. It is unlike any in the country because of its independent-living setup.

So when you hit rock bottom, how do you pick yourself up off the pavement?

"With a lot of help," said one, Joyce "Maci" Maciak, 52, a former Army helicopter mechanic.

Sam Skokut, a 48-year-old former Navy engineer, has been at the residence for just six weeks, living with three other men in a yellow, two-story townhouse.

"This is the first step to climb the ladder," he said while giving a tour of his first home in nearly two years.

He is nearing completion of the first phase of the approximately four-month program to stabilize the veterans' lives by bridging a return to the work force and long-term housing.

Mr. Skokut served in the Persian Gulf in 1989-93 and then worked for more than a decade driving trucks.

But he developed a gambling habit and invested in a couple of bad business ventures. And then his place caught fire.

"I wasn't making wise decisions," he said. "If it wasn't one type of problem, it was another."

And until recently, those problems kept him on the move nightly, from friend to friend and house to house.

"I got away from God," he admitted. "When things fell apart, so did my strong faith."

On this day, he shows off a plasma television, hung on the wall of the living room, where he watches mostly preaching shows and feels that his old self is returning.

"It's been a little while," he said. "But I'm happy."

His is one of 74 beds in a group of 20 apartments, townhouses and patio houses, the first of its kind built in a residential community environment instead of a more traditional dormitory-type facility.

"It's basically apartment living," said program coordinator Gary Glacken. "This is as close to a community standard as they would move into when they leave, so we're trying to make it as close to common as possible."

On a typical day, the residences are 90 percent full, and 75 percent of the nearly 600 veterans the program treats a year are successful in terms of achieving employment and permanent housing goals.

"The feedback has been excellent," Mr. Glacken said. "We've found that this setup fosters more independence out of the veterans."

Of the 25 percent who don't initially finish the program, which is voluntary and free to the veterans, Mr. Glacken said about half of them return.

Fifty-four-year-old George Fletcher is one of those people.

Mr. Fletcher was in the Navy for four years in the late 1970s. Stationed in Puerto Rico, he said, he drank and smoked marijuana excessively.

"And that led to one thing, which led to another," he said. "It was insanity. I just didn't care about anything. Nothing mattered."

He eventually became addicted to crack cocaine and went to jail on a felony drug conviction in 1996 after getting arrested for selling crack.

After two years in jail, he went straight to the old residency dorm at the VA medical center on Highland Drive in Lincoln-Lemington and lived there until 2003, before leaving, drinking and smoking again.

Five years later, he resurfaced at the recovery center, this time at the new H. John Heinz III VA Progressive Care Center in O'Hara.

"I went through the old place and now this one," he said, poking a thumbs-up out of a brace he wears on his right wrist because of carpal tunnel syndrome. "This is nice."

Today, Mr. Fletcher lives in an apartment in Mount Washington, part of a transitional housing phase that bridges time in the O'Hara residency with permanent housing, and he runs a cold-weather shelter Downtown for homeless people.

"And I have a smile on my face every day," he said.

Mary Frances Pilarski meets many of these veterans on the streets, at shelters and at soup kitchens.

She manages the 125-plus community-based beds for transitional housing, which veterans can live in for up to three years before seeking permanent housing.

"This is like a continuum of care," she said. "We're taking a holistic approach here, working with everything to make sure our vets are taken care of."

Ms. Pilarski said the two biggest components of the program are reaching out to the community and managing the veterans on a case-by-case basis.

"Over the years, the community has become more aware of our homeless vets," she said. "We see people being more proactive and new vets coming aboard, and with that, we have even more of a responsibility to them."

"It's a blessing and a privilege," Ms. Pilarski said of working with the veterans. "When you see, in their face, the change, it's all about working for that happy ending."

Diana McCloskey is close to one of those happy endings.

Last July, after resisting her friend's repeated urgings to give the program a shot, Ms. McCloskey, 50, who fought a losing battle with domestic abuse, "Got really drunk and had my friend drive me there."

Today, she's glad she had those drinks, and it's evident by the smile on her face.

"This is the best program in the world," she said. "Helping to put the past away is awesome."

Ms. McCloskey was an Air Force officer in the early 1980s. The abuse began after her military duty and started her downward spiral, one she says included lost jobs, divorce, a stay in a Schenley Park cave and "major issues coming to the surface."

The embarrassment and fear of being a victim was trying, the mother of two daughters said, and in the aftermath, "Some major issues I had came to the surface."

"I think I was abused specifically because I was a female veteran and he felt insecure about it," Ms. McCloskey said of her ex-husband.

"It was constant abuse while trying to raise two kids," she continued. "And if there's anything I can stress, it's that there are other abused female veterans out there."

She lived at the domiciliary last August and graduated from the rehabilitation and treatment program in January, rooming with two women in similar situations before moving into the transitional housing phase.

Her relationships with her two daughters were once strained, but she talks to them regularly these days and has been accepted to Duquesne University for paralegal studies. If everything works out financially, she will pursue a degree there.

"It was a great day when I came here," Ms. McCloskey said. "And I haven't felt this good in a long time."

She smiled.

"But I don't think I've had my best day yet."

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