Never leave a soldier behind: Worcester nonprofits help veterans face addiction

US veterans face many unique challenges navigating post-military life, but one local nonprofit has made it its mission to see them succeed.

Veterans Inc., a Worcester based non-profit, has become a national leader in providing services for veterans.

Since 1990, the local organization has helped more than 100,000 veterans in need and operates offices and programs in all six New England states.

But the nonprofit began with more humble roots as a shelter for Vietnam War veterans.

In 1991, the historic National Guard Armory on Grove Street was leased to the group for one dollar per year from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The building had sat abandoned for over 12 years and was slated for demolition.

“We took out 400 bags of pigeon poop,” said Vincent Perrone, president of Veterans Inc. “It took us four months to clean and sanitize the building and turn on the utilities. The cleanup was all hands on deck and an all-volunteer effort.”

Perrone, a former US Air Force veteran, along with Executive Director Denis Leary took the fledgling organization from $100,000 in to operating in the black debt in less than a year.

“After about 8 years of volunteering nights and weekends, Denis and I went out to dinner one night and he looked at me and said we’re working two full time jobs and only getting paid for one,” Perrone said. “So one day I went over Denis’ house and I noticed a little pail with chalk in it so I picked up a piece of chalk and began writing the strategic plan for the next three years on his garage floor. He said he liked the idea of ​​working full time but told me to quit my first job.”

Within six months, Perrone and Leary would leave their jobs to work full time for Veterans Inc. and the rest as they say is history.

“The first thing we do when we see a veteran is providing them an individual service plan and we assess their needs through what we call a triangle of needs,” said Perrone. “This is a holistic approach to ensure that the most critical needs of each veteran are met.”

The nonprofit’s nationally recognized clinical model provides services in healthcare, mental health, addiction, housing, legal aid and employment training.

Breaking the cycle

Perrone admits that one of the biggest obstacles for veterans nowadays is addiction.

“The opioid crisis has hit the veteran population hard,” said Perrone. “We recognize that we can’t get veterans into good jobs or sustainable housing until they break the cycle of addiction.”

In 2017, Veterans Inc. Opened the first licensed substance addiction treatment center in the country that is operated by a specific veteran, non-profit organization.

Located on 22 acres in nearby Shrewsbury, the facility – dubbed Independence Hall – includes 70 beds for both inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment services for veterans.

Photo | Edd Cote

Veterans Inc. provides services for more than 16,000 clients annually.

On March 11, Veterans Inc. received $430,000 from a $1.5-trillion federal appropriations bill to build a Level 4 Medically Managed Intensive Inpatient Services facility at Independence Hall. The funds will expand a supervised detoxification service to meet the much needed demand for addiction treatment services among the local veteran population.

“One reason the veteran population is so vulnerable to addiction issues is because of the kind of things they are exposed to which can be traumatic,” said Lisa Blanchard, chief clinical officer at Spectrum Health Systems. “Trauma impacts the brain in a very similar way to addiction. Both take over the cognitive part of the brain which impacts decision making and certain brain functions.”

Spectrum Health Systems is a Worcester non-profit specializing in addiction treatment services. The organization offers a variety of services designed around the needs of the individual such as residential programs, outpatient services, peer support, clinical stabilization, and inpatient detoxification.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 1.3 million US veterans had a substance abuse disorder in 2019 – a 6.7% increase from 2018 – with 1 in 4 struggling with illicit drug use.

In addition, 595,000 veterans suffered from opioid misuse in 2019 — the largest percentage coming from overprescribed painkillers – a small increase over 2018.

Through services such as Spectrum Health and Veterans Inc., veterans who are addicts can find help and support, but the journey is complicated.

“The most acute needs must come first,” said Blanchard. “Using evidence based on practices we help veterans get back on the road to recovery. It’s hard to work on other critical needs like employment or housing when someone is suffering from withdrawals.”

Blanchard admits that stigma still plays a large role in many getting the care they need.

“There is sadly still so much stigma,” Blanchard said. “Addiction is a chronic brain disorder but there is still a misunderstanding that it is a moral failing. So some sufferers may internalize this stigma and feel some guilt and blame when they should not.”

Photo | Edd Cote

Veterans Inc. provides food security services for 2,400 clients annually.

Speaking from experience

For many other veterans who are trained to focus on the good of a unit, they feel guilt or shame when they lose a job, need extra support, or find themselves homeless. Reaching out for help is a difficult first step for some veterans. However, just as the sacred commitment of the US military goes – “I will never leave a soldier behind” – the same rings true at Veterans Inc. with many proud to have called 69 Grove Street their home.

“I’m twice lucky in one year,” said Carl Munz, US Army veteran. “Working with their employment training they put me in touch with a telecommunications company and I got a job before I even had a chance to get an apartment.”

Munz got injured on the job but secured housing within just a few months of having arrived back to Veterans Inc.

“Don’t feel ashamed,” Munz said. “Everybody needs help and we’re all in the same boat.”

Since arriving a few months ago, Munz has helped set up a music group for residents who want to learn how to play music.

“I’m a drummer and we got some other people who enjoy playing instruments,” Munz said. “So we set up a little band. It’s great therapy.”

Veterans Inc. runs a food pantry on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of every month from 9 am to 1 pm

For more information about Veterans Inc. and its services visit: https://www.veteransinc.org/.

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