One Veteran's Story

One Veteran's Story - James 
Jim was born in Akron Ohio.  His family had moved north from West Virginia where he continued to enjoy summers with family during school breaks.  He particularly enjoyed those summers away from home because, as he puts it, “the house I grew up in was ruled by mental illness” from which one of his parents suffered.


Jim enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and served in Vietnam for over a year as a Field Radio Operator assigned to an Artillery Unit.  He was discharged in 1968.


In 1989, Jim began treatment at the VA for substance use.  In 1991, he also began treatment for PTSD at the Errera Community Care Center (“Errera”).  Of his visits to ERRERA Jim says, “What a blessing.  It was an oasis and a source of calmness.”


At that time Jim decided to continue his education.  He enrolled in a two-year Associates Degree program at Gateway Community College in New Haven Connecticut.  In 1994 he was accepted to work and study at Errera as an intern in a program for dual diagnosis veterans who were “high facility users” of VA mental health services and were also recovering substance abusers.  At this time Errera had no peer-led groups.


When he began to intern at Errera, he became re-acquainted with Laurie Harkness, Errera’s Director, who had treated him while he was a consumer of VA mental health services.  Jim walked out of a room dedicated to group therapy for substance abusers, “and there she was.”  After a moment of uncertainty as to Jim’s status, Dr. Harkness was very relieved to learn that he was there as an intern and not as a consumer. 


After interning, Jim became a VA volunteer at Errera.  At the same time, and while still in school, Jim also began to work at Elm Street, one of the permanent supportive houses owned by the Vietnam Veterans of America (“VVA”).  He was fortunate to succeed his friend, Russ Carter, as House Supervisor. Each of the Elm Street House residents was diagnosed with the “dual diagnoses” of mental illness and substance abuse.  At Elm Street Jim created a manual for the resident veterans “on how to conduct yourself.”  The manual was so detailed that it even included recipes for cooking food.  It was Jim’s objective to bring veterans back into society who would otherwise have been hospitalized in nursing homes.  In order to qualify, the veteran had to be capable of self administering medications and free of substance abuse.  The group home assigned chores to residents and had three “group meals” each week.  There were weekly house meetings and facilities to do laundry in the house.  Many residents traveled by bus to the VA where they served as volunteers. 


At Errera, Jim worked with Mary Sperrazza and with Dr. Paul Errera to develop innovative new ways to run Errera programs.  From the perspective of a former consumer of VA services, Jim was able to suggest many ways in which services to veterans could be improved.  For example, veterans are provided with  bus tokens for transportation and  Jim introduced new methods to reduce the number of  lost or stolen tokens.  Jim introduced a very popular “family dinner night” a program which allowed veterans and their friends and families to get together in a positive environment.  Jim encouraged residents to join him in monthly hiking trips which he led.  Most importantly, after becoming an AmeriCorps volunteer, Jim was able to overcome staff concerns about volunteer “competition” to establish frequent peer led clinical group meetings.  Dr. Harkness recalls that Jim was critical to the development of some of the programs for which Errera is best known.  She says, “Jim had a lot of input into programs.  Before Jim, ours was a ‘medical model.’  He took it to a ‘veteran model.’  Jim was the right person at the right time.” 


After a short while, the Errera staff became very receptive to Jim’s suggestions.  Jim started a group for relapse prevention for substance abusers.  He would start working with these veterans “from the moment they came in the door.”  He introduced them into group meetings by starting with breakfast – accompanied by conversation about the relevant topics of discussion.  Breakfast melded into “coffee and . . .” sessions where the veterans would sit and relax and talk.  Jim would sit with them and help to channel the discussion into productive areas.  He gave the groups memorable names like, “Creating Options” and “Rumps Under the Hood.”  These sessions were the precursors to today’s critical peer led Errera group sessions. 


Jim discussed various approaches to mentoring with Mary Sperrazza.  Jim saw it as akin to twelve step programs.  Mentors were often assigned at the “family dinners.”  Jim efforts to expand the number of mentors to include veterans outside the Errera group was not successful because it was learned that the mentors needed access and review by people with professional training.  Relationships within the community were encouraged.  Some worked well and some did not. 


In mentoring veterans, Jim counseled them on the difficult task of disengaging from unsuccessful mentoring relationships. This type of mentoring was also valuable to veterans in dealings with relatives and friends.  Jim taught them to “own what you own and let the other person own what he owns.”  He told them that “your concerns are legitimate.  Approach these difficult relationships in a respectful, thoughtful manner.”  Jim sometimes taught by role-playing with the veterans.  He helped to empower them.  These early experiments and discussions were the seeds that were later formalized by Moe Armstrong and Ed Burke into the Vet-to Vet programs.  Jim modestly says, “We just saw what was happening and helped more of it to happen.”  He notes that veterans were already helping each other and that there “always was a lot of support.” 


Jim observes that “Vets want peace of mind, serenity and living in peace.  Errera is a sanctuary.”  But while working at Errera, Jim’s own PTSD was becoming more symptomatic.  He felt pulled in many directions – student, counselor, AA friend, and mentor.  He found his days very difficult.  In a single day, he could attend school, work at Errera, and attend AA meetings.  Jim discussed his stress with Laurie and together they decided that it would be best for Jim’s welfare for him to “disengage.”  While remaining a member of the Board of Homes for the Brave, Jim significantly dialed back his other commitments.  Jim prevailed on his appeal to the VA and was granted 100 percent service connection.  He bought a “fixer-upper” house near Errera and continues to spend most of his time lovingly renovating the property and his home.  Jim has found that this work makes him happy and has given him peace of mind.  In this beautiful spot, together with his significant other, Bernadette, Jim has found a new tranquility.


At the time Jim decided to back off from his heavy schedule and somewhat “disengage” he had certainly earned the right to do so. In October of 1999 Jim received the All AmeriCorps Award, “for Getting Things Done.”  The award was presented to him by General Colin Powell at a White House ceremony where he had the opportunity to meet with the President.  On October 20, 1999, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro honored Jim by entering the following statement into the Congressional Record:


One of the Getting Things Done award recipients is from West Haven, CT, in my district.  His name is James Boland. Ten years ago, James was a homeless Vietnam veteran.  Today, he is getting things done as an AmeriCorps member at the Veterans Administration’s Connecticut Community Care Center— the very facility that took him in off the streets and saved his life 10 years ago.  The Community Care Center, or CCC for short, provides veterans struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, or homelessness with a continuation of community-based rehabilitation services. James is an important part of that care. He developed and oversees the CCC’s mentoring and buddy programs, and he established and leads the monthly family dinners.  He also conducts skills building group sessions for veterans in the CCC’s day program.  On top of all that, James works 20 hours a week as the property manager for four houses for homeless and mentally ill veterans — he is also the resident manager of one of the homes.  The CCC changed James’s life. He has gone from living on the streets to being close to finishing his bachelor’s degree from Charter Oak State College. AmeriCorps will make it possible for him to continue this path of success.  He plans to use his education award to

go to graduate school.  Mr. Speaker, James Boland is proof positive

of the value and success of the AmeriCorps program, not only for the opportunities it has given James, but for the care and compassion

James has given to homeless vets.


And Senator Christopher Dodd honored Jim with these words:


Only twelve AmeriCorps members nationwide have been selected to receive this honor. James was selected as a winner because of his outstanding work on behalf of homeless and mentally ill veterans. James, a Vietnam veteran, serves as an AmeriCorps member at the very facility that took him off the street twelve years ago when he was homeless. Today, James manages four houses for homeless and mentally ill veterans, which are part of the VA Connecticut community Care Center. James developed and oversees the mentoring and buddy programs in the crisis day program, designed the monthly family dinners and meetings, and conducts skills building groups in the day program.


Jim’s ability to overcome adversity and care for his fellow veterans has been an inspiration to many who he has helped and to those who have worked with him.




James was one of 12 All AmeriCorps Award winners nationwide,
in Senator Dodd's Washington office.
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