A Place Where a Man Can Finally Lay His Weapon Down
ABCCM’s Veterans Restoration Quarters
I was excited when I was asked to write this article about the Veterans Restoration Quarters. I had just visited the ABCCM Crisis Ministry and fallen in love with the work that they were doing there. But, to be honest, before writing this article I was clueless regarding Veterans and their issues. I knew that a Veteran was someone who had served in the armed forces. Researching the topic and reading the statistics proved to be very eye-opening.
The term Post-traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) was familiar to me. I understood that this was a severe anxiety disorder that could develop after exposure to a traumatic event, but I didn’t realize that the diagnosis of PTSD historically originated from observing the effect of combat on soldiers. Another eye-opener was how debilitating or long-lasting the effects could be. Throughout our history, regardless of which war, high rates of PTSD in veterans have been found. It is one of the leading causes of homelessness with Veterans.
Another staggering reason that Veterans experience PTSD has nothing to do with combat. Many men and women have PTSD after returning from duty because they were raped in the military. The U.S. Department of Defense has deemed April as Sexual Assault Awareness month. The Department is committed to raising awareness and promoting the prevention of sexual violence in the military through use of special events and public education.
Veterans are 50 percent more likely to become homeless compared to all Americans. About 96 percent are single while 4 percent have families. Currently there are over 100,000 homeless Veterans in the U.S.
With these statistics and many more swimming around in my head, I felt sad to think that some of the parting gifts a man or woman received for serving our country included: homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illness. I was curious to see what ABCCM had created to support these amazing people. The facility I was to visit was for male Veterans. ABCCM also has a facility for women called Steadfast House.
Just one mile from the V.A. Medical Center in Asheville, the Veterans Restoration Quarters at 1329 Tunnel road is a refurbished Super 8 Motel. When I entered the VRQ, it was clear that I had entered into a male domain. The looks I received were respectful and the man behind the front desk promptly asked me how he could be of service. Respect and southern manners were evident in each interaction I overheard as I was escorted back to the Director’s office.
One of the first things I noticed about Michael Reich was unwavering connection to his faith. He believes that it was the “will of God” that brought him to his current position. Michael’s background as a social worker for 16 years and a child abuse investigator for 5 (over 50% of chronically homeless veterans have been abused or neglected as a child or young adult), along with his unwavering connection to his spiritual practice make him a perfect fit for the position.
When I asked Michael to tell me about the facility, he described it as a place where men can come and finally “lay their weapons down.” The VRQ is a sanctuary where they know that they no longer have to look over their shoulders. It is here that they re-learn the skills needed to live their lives again. When asked what he enjoys most about his job he said: “It gives me the opportunity to be a small player in the transformation of these men’s lives.”
At any given time, 95% of those living at VRQ are clean (of drugs), and 94% with mental health diagnosis are not demonstrating symptoms. That is amazing, given that more than three-quarters have substance abuse problems; about the same number have had a recent diagnosis of mental health issues. Guilt and shame are the biggest reasons that veterans self-medicate. When the men leave this facility, well over half leave with a successful discharge: the national average is 47%.
The VRQ serves over 225 men each day. Currently more than 50 men at ABCCM have seen combat. The men range in age from early twenties to their sixties with the average age being 52. With support from the VA Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program, the Asheville VRQ is able to offer vets transitional housing and supportive services for up to two years. The ABCCM-VRQ is the third largest Per Diem program for homeless Vets in the United States.
When a Veteran enters the two-year program, s/he receives: a case manager, 3 meals per day, lodging, classes, and utilization of VRQ resources. Accountability is one of the key components of the programs in the facility I visited, and they have a three-strikes policy in effect. The men are not allowed to be idle. Each man is assigned a case manager and meets with their manager at least once a week. There are random drug screenings and a “monthly men’s assembly.” The assembly is mandatory and it is a time of acknowledgement and lifting a man up for his accomplishments. All men must attend classes/meetings each week. The number they attend depends on the track they have chosen.
When a man enters the program he can choose one of two tracks: the Employment track or the Disability track. The Employment track involves going to school or being placed in a job-training program. The Disability track includes going to school and Volunteer work. For those not employed, 20 hours per week of service (chores) on site is required.
Some of the current classes being offered at the VRQ cover topics in: Anger/Stress Management, Chemical Dependency, Money Management, GED/Tutoring, Computer skills, Coping/Life skills, Grief & Loss, Christian Life Skills, Smoking Cessation, and Forgiveness.
VRQ offers training in: culinary arts, hospitality, truck driving, and healthcare. To prepare a man for the workplace, it offers training in resumes and other essentials. They also advocate for Veterans with VA hospitals and people in the outside community for referrals.
Former Super 8 Motel and the Gardens Vets keep up and use
After the program is completed, a “Transition Liaison” is assigned to each man for two years. Another option after graduation is to enter the PFR (Program Free Room) program. These are rooms available on campus for a reduced rate. The men are expected to buy their own food, pay rent (which gives them a future rental reference), and pay for their laundry. This program helps teach them responsibility for paying bills. Finding a good job and affordable housing are two of the biggest difficulties encountered by the Vets in the program.
The VRQ Campus has: 148 Per Diem Beds, 18 Intake Beds (men waiting to get into program), 18 emergency Shelter beds (first come, first served. starting at 4:30 p.m. daily), 6 Non-Vet beds (given out in 30-day increments), and 45 PFR Rooms. There are also six full-time Case Managers, a Registered Nurse, and a Psychologist. Some of the amenities on the campus include: a weight room, a computer lab and library, a therapeutic garden, a horseshoe pit and volleyball net. When I spoke with Kelley Freeman, VRQ Volunteer Coordinator, she said that one of the goals at VRQ was to make it “as homey as possible.” She further believes, “When you look at a man and see him as someone’s dad, son, uncle, or brother—you see more than the Vet.”
Success Story: Ron Kennedy
Enough of the statistics! There are many success stories of residents at the VRQ. I had the opportunity to interview Ron Kennedy; his story is a particularly poignant one.
Ron served overseas in the Army from 1976-1982. He came from a broken family; started drinking at a young age and by 15 was an alcoholic. He told me that he joined the army because it got him away from family and supported his drinking habit.
After returning from Europe in ‘82 he got married. His marriage lasted 8 years. Ron continually struggled with depression and with alcohol addiction. Once his marriage ended, his drifting began. He traveled around, got temporary jobs and housing. But once he had 2 or 3 paychecks under his belt, he would go on drinking binges, then move onto the next place. As years progressed he lost his drivers license, and was alternately in rehabs, jails, and hospitals. He attempted suicide.
From ‘94-‘98 Ron went through the VA program in Pennsylvania. He was sober but continued to live in many different places. In ‘98 his mom became seriously ill; he was put in charge of deciding to let her go. Her death was an enormous blow. Adding to this tragedy, he hadn’t seen or spoken to his children in 12 years. He soon started drinking and drifting once again. In 2004 he ended up in VA hospital in Mt. Home where he stayed for a year. He was still depressed and continued drinking.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, he was in Mississippi working construction for a casino. While on the job, he felt something pop in his neck and went to a VA hospital nearby. He was told that 3 disks in his neck were injured and he would need surgery. Because of the recovery time required, Ron wanted to find a location closer to home for the surgery. He was told that Asheville had a program.
Once Ron got to Asheville, he was told that they did not do that type of surgery anymore. Then the person that had helped him get from the bus station to the medical appointment told him she wouldn’t help anymore until he got himself together. She dropped him off at a local motel, gave him $20, and drove away.
Ron went to see a Vet coordinator and was guided to ABCCM. At the time, the facility was located downtown and was much smaller. He was told that all of the beds were full and was put on a waiting list. While walking down Tunnel Road, he saw a Super 8 motel with an abandoned church behind it. Behind the church was a wooded area. Ron decided to camp in woods behind the church and continued feeding his alcohol habit.
Miraculously one day, he was contacted by the coordinator and told that ABCCM had a bed for him. Ron got on the bus; when he got there, the man at the front desk said, “You’re home now.” (Side note: when we got to this part of the story Ron got emotional and said that at the time he couldn’t comprehend someone wanting him around; that he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.) The first few years of the program he followed his old patterns, got into trouble and was in and out of the program.
Finally, things started looking up for him and he was hired to work at the Front Desk at the Veteran’s Center. After working and receiving three or four paychecks, the old pattern returned and Ron decided to leave for a few days so he could drink again.
He bought a 12-pack of beer, got on a bus and went back to the woods on Tunnel Road. As he drank, he got sadder and sadder. At some point he decided it was time to talk to God. He spent the next two days in the woods sharing everything about his life with god. He expressed all of his feelings as he talked and cried. During these two days he kept saying, “You just show me what to do”. On the third morning he woke up, looked at the beer cans, and knew he had to stop drinking.
He returned to ABCCM and took responsibility for his actions. He never wanted to drink again; he was ready to start his new life. A few months later Michael Reich came on board and asked Ron to help him with the opening of the new VRQ site. Its location was not only on Tunnel Road, it was the very Super 8 Motel next to the woods where it all started for Ron.
“I started at those woods and came back to them. But this time I came back a different man.”
Ron’s first room looked over into the woods where his journey began. Often, he would wake up, get his coffee, and go to the woods to talk to God.
After volunteering at the new site for several, months he was offered the job of Front Desk supervisor. He accepted the position because he knew that he now had the tools he needed to live life.
Today Ron lives on-site and is VRQ’s Front Desk supervisor, Intake Specialist, and helps with the day-to-day workings on campus. It is fast-paced and he loves it. He told me that he wakes up happy now and that he never thought that would be possible.
He smiled as he finished and said: “ABCCM never asked for anything in return. Just that I be my best—that’s what I strive for every day. They gave me the tools for a stronger foundation and always respected the man I was. They never gave up on me. Because of this, Ron feels like they gave him his life back; there’s not enough he can give back to the VRQ. He is an amazing example for the men that show up on campus.
“It’s not just about the tools you learn at ABCCM, you need to learn to live again.”
Today Ron is in contact with all of his children, and is looking forward to figuring out Skype so that he can see his Grandbaby in Germany. He loves giving back to the community and is the Post Commander for American Legion Post 526.
Once again, the ABCCM is a beacon of light for those in need. The Veteran’s Restoration Center on Tunnel Road offers the possibility of a fresh start for the men that served our country. It is a place that allows these men to get out of their heads and back into their hearts.
If you are interested in supporting the amazing work that the ABCCM does, please attend their Sharing Affair Auction on August 13th at NewLifeCommunity Church. This event will benefit all the wonderful organizations of ABCCM. Donations for the event are welcome and some of the most sought after items that participants bid on are: Vacations, trips, furniture, jewelry, hunting & fishing equipment. For upcoming ABCCM events please visit:
Lorri Gifford has been reading Tarot Cards since 1986. For over four years she worked at The Chopra Center for Well-being as their Spa Director and a Lead Educator. In 2009 her intuition guided her to move to Asheville. Lorri enjoys giving readings, coaching and helping others develop and deepen their intuition. She can be reached at readingswithlorri.com or 828.505.4485.