War Veterans Getting a Second Chance at Life Farai Chideya visits New Directions in Los Angeles, a long-term drug and alcohol treatment program — founded by three formerly homeless veterans — which provides food, shelter, and rehabilitation to transient war veterans.
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War Veterans Getting a Second Chance at Life

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War Veterans Getting a Second Chance at Life

War Veterans Getting a Second Chance at Life

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From NPR News, this is News & Notes, I'm Farai Chideya. On any given day, more than 200,000 veterans find themselves sleeping on the streets they fought to protect. This year, as many as 800,000 will be homeless for some period of time. Many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction. To find out what happens to these lost soldiers, I visited the grounds of the largest veterans administration facility in the country, near the heart of Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of a helicopter)

CHIDEYA: A medical helicopter takes off from the VA Sprawling Campus, it passes over countless patient facilities, as well as a veteran's garden, a baseball field, and the Los Angeles National Cemetery. There, tens of thousands of granite markers bleach in the California sun. In the middle of the campus stands a stately brick building with arched windows, built in the 1920s. It is home to New Directions, a nonprofit organization, separate from the VA, that's helped thousands of homeless veterans get back on their feet.

Murray Wood meets us in the lobby, he's broad-shouldered with glasses, and a look of a man who has found his passion. Wood gave up a lucrative university job to become New Directions' head of development and PR.

Mr. MURRAY WOOD (Head of Development and PR, New Directions): Where we are standing today, there are more veterans within 42 miles of where we are standing than in 42 states of the union.

CHIDEYA: That's 42 states combined. As Wood describes what goes on here, behind closed doors his enthusiasm is palpable.

Mr. WOOD: New Directions is a place literally of transition and transformation, of people who have once been with their families, once been having jobs, gainful, then going into the military, then getting out somehow than falling down on their luck, and then they are on their way back and we see transformation.

CHIDEYA: To prove his point, Wood introduces me to Todd Roberts, a resident manager. Roberts is dressed like any other employee on casual Friday, in a Polo shirt, slacks and loafers. But he still stands like a soldier, with his legs locked and his hands clasped behind his back.

Mr. WOOD: Todd, how long have you been here at New Directions?

Mr. TODD ROBERTS (Resident Manager, New Directions): I have been here from upon a year now. One week from now.

CHIDEYA: Like 95 percent of New Direction's employees, Roberts was once a resident. Before that, the former Marine was homeless and addicted to heroine.

Mr. ROBERTS: I was (unintelligible) living out on the streets in a tent, on the side of a freeway. And my parents, who happen to live in Montana - retired out there - they came out to find me. And one morning I came outside my tent, and there they were standing there. It was a real awakening for me.

CHIDEYA: Roberts has only been clean a year, but says he is determined to stay that way. And he credits New Directions and his fellow veterans there with helping him do what he couldn't have done alone.

Mr. ROBERTS: We have a saying here, it says the eye rarely sees itself. OK, I can't treat myself. The guys in the house they see me better than I see myself. And so when we have these groups they can tell me how I am acting in the house, or my, you know, where I need to improve at, the things that I need to admit, need to address that I just don't see.

CHIDEYA: One reason many troubled veterans turn to drugs or alcohol is to numb emotional pain. Dr. Michael Buffington, a clinical psychologist at New Directions, says comeback can create fresh emotional wounds as well as exacerbate old ones, even from childhood.

Dr. MICHAEL BUFFINGTON (Clinical Psychologist, New Directions): For example, you can take a group of 10 guys, on average, send them in the combat. Two will come back with some significant trauma, two will come back with no symptoms at all, and the other guys will be midrange. And that's usually predicated on who they were going in, and whether they volunteered or didn't.

CHIDEYA: My journey to New Directions began where does for homeless veterans, on the third floor, in detox.

Mr. ANTHONY BELCHER (Intake Manager, New Directions): Hello, hello, hello, hello. Again, my name is Anthony, welcome to the assessment center.

CHIDEYA: Anthony Belcher runs intake. That's where veterans from the street who want help entrust themselves to men who've walked this road before.

Mr. BELCHER: A veteran can walk in here at any time of day, any time of night, and if we've got a bed, he can get a bed.

CHIDEYA: As soon as a veteran arrives, he is asked for his life history, including drug and alcohol use. Then he begins a de-tox that can last up to 21 days. The staff psychologist assesses him for mental illness. The results of that evaluation determine where he will end up next, in a 12-step residential program or in a building next door, for vets suffering from addiction and trauma.

Mr. BELCHER: We are called the Last House on the Block, so when guys get here, the average I would say is at least 15 years of active use. We have got guys that have been in and out prisons, long-term homelessness, so here the biggest obstacle to anyone is just believing that, you know, if I invest this time, is it going to do me any good?

Mr. WOOD: You will see it is very consistent, part of what we do during...

CHIDEYA: Wood gives me a tour of the residents' rooms. They are sunny with tall windows, and clean as a boot camp barracks. The hallways feature long built-in wooden benches. They are there for a reason, says Wood.

Mr. WOOD: One of the assignments that every resident has is - they carry a little spiral book, like I do, kind of a memo book, a spiral ring. And one of their responsibilities is to speak with every other resident in the house. It is roughly 200 residents, clients here. And their assignment is to share their story, so that each resident knows everyone else's story.

CHIDEYA: Newcomers are surrounded by success stories, like Michel Doyle (ph), a case manager for men just leaving rehab. He himself came to New Directions after what many here call a nudge from the judge, rehab or jail. He is quick to point out that although New Directions has a higher success rate than many rehab programs, the staff can't make a veteran change.

Mr. MICHAEL DOYLE (Case Manager, New Directions): The program is not designed for everybody, it is only designed for the people who want recovery. You know, that's the easiest part. You can go there and do it because you're court-ordered, because you are desperate, or whatever. But for you to be successful, you've got to want to be successful, you got to want to come off drugs and alcohol, you want to, you got to want to want to change your life around.

CHIDEYA: But starting over means more than kicking drugs or alcohol, for those veterans who lack basic reading and math skills, the next stop is...

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