Gardner rehab center helps young veterans to cope with life after war
GARDNER - Jacqueline Rosario’s hands are full. A US Army veteran of the Afghan war, the 30-year-old single mother is attending Mount Wachusett Community College while juggling the hyperactive demands of a 5-year-old daughter and 14-month-old son.
She also is a recovering opiate addict whose life disintegrated into a dependence on medication she originally took for a back injury suffered during a 12-year military career.
But life is improving for the Templeton native. Ensconced in a new, two-bedroom duplex with toys on the floor and inspirational sayings on the walls, Rosario is turning the corner through a program that provides disabled Iraq and Afghan veterans low-cost housing, free education at Mount Wachusett, and therapy tailored to their physical, occupational, and emotional needs.
The private, nonprofit program, called the Northeast Veteran Training and Rehabilitation Center, is based on this simple premise: to give struggling young veterans and their families the tools they need for a life after war.
Created by Leslie Lightfoot, an Army medic during the Vietnam War, its woodsy campus has 10 duplex apartments on 10 acres of land donated by the college.
Another 10 units are expected to be completed by January. The center’s $7 million cost, with an anticipated need of $1 million more, has been met through donations, she said.
Funding, Lightfoot says, comes “from anybody we can beg from. We run on a shoestring here with lots and lots of volunteers.’’
One institution that provided key assistance was Mount Wachusett Community College. Its president, Daniel Asquino, is a Navy veteran who recognized the merit in Lightfoot’s idea.
After leaving the Navy in 1965, Asquino said, “it was the GI Bill that enabled me to get through college.’’
“This was an opportunity to give back to veterans who have been injured psychologically and physically,’’ he said.
The relationship benefits all involved, Asquino said, from the veterans and spouses who take courses at the college, the students who receive real-life training by working with the veterans, and faculty who feel satisfaction from giving back to the service members.
All of the veterans at the center have a disability, whether physical, psychological, or both. There is screening for mental health problems during the application process.
But those problems do not lessen their responsibility to work toward control of their lives.
Rosario, who is studying exercise science, values the center’s accountability and structure. “There is random drug testing all the time; there is zero tolerance,’’ Rosario said.
“There’s no lying on the couch and drinking beer here,’’ Lightfoot said with a smile. “You have to pay the rent before you buy the Xbox.’’
Veterans and their families pay nominal rent for the 1,500-square-foot apartments.
No rents exceed 30 percent of income, and none are allowed to exceed $500, Lightfoot said. Utilities are free.
The needs of returning, disabled veterans are better met by clustering services and stable housing at a single location, she said.
“A lot do the educational piece, some do the counseling piece, but nobody put it in one place,’’ Lightfoot said.
Her goal - an ambitious one for a woman who has already created a veterans hospice in Fitchburg and a New Hampshire farm for psychologically scarred veterans - is to replicate the center nationwide.
“It needed to be done,’’ Lightfoot said.
Rosario, wearing an Army T-shirt as her children clambered into her lap, said the center has made a critical difference.
Without its opportunities, she said, “I think I would be living on the streets without my kids. They basically just want us to succeed.’’
The center offers counseling in anger management, marriage issues, substance-abuse problems, and even personal banking.
Except for less than $50,000 that the center uses from a grant to its umbrella organization, Veteran Homestead Inc., the organization relies on the largesse of others.
Jacob Dussold, 27, a former Army sergeant who served in Iraq, has post-traumatic stress syndrome from his deployment and is 100 percent disabled because of a back injury he suffered during training.
The native of Jefferson City, Mo., has joint custody of a 4-year-old daughter who lives in the area. He is working toward an automotive degree.
“This gives me stability, housing, a little less stress, and some quality time with my daughter,’’ Dussold said.
“Before,’’ he said, “I was living in downtown Worcester for $1,200 a month in a closet apartment.’’
Dan Duggan, 28, an Army veteran of Iraq, has been living at the center for about 18 months as he pursues a two-year degree in general studies.
After leaving the Army and holding short-term jobs such as driving for UPS and retreading tires, Duggan said, “I basically wanted to find myself and try to find something else to be good at, because the only thing I was good at was the infantry.’’
The camaraderie is special, he said.
“You’re not another number; you have a name,’’ Duggan said. “It’s not based on rank here. You could be a reserve Coast Guard cook for all I care. Each other’s all we got.’’
They also have Lightfoot, who is mentor, role model, and den mother for the veterans.
“She’s teaching me how to cook,’’ Rosario said recently. “Tomorrow, she’ll teach me how to make an apple pie.’’
MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.