COLONIE, N.Y. — Albany County Executive Dan McCoy rolled out Sunday what he says is the first phase of transforming the former county nursing home campus into a sprawling services and housing center for veterans struggling to adapt to life after combat.
The county and the nonprofit group Soldier On have turned a long vacant two-story office space not far from the Ann Lee Home into the headquarters for the Albany County Veterans Resource Center. While plans to turn the former nursing home just across from Albany International Airport into a housing center for homeless veterans are still far from completion, the offices of the resource center should be open in roughly a month.
The center will help guide veterans of any age to the resources available and also aid those in need of temporary financing for those looking to find a home.
McCoy, himself an Iraq veteran, was joined Sunday outside the new offices by a host of other elected officials, military personnel and a couple hundred veterans.
"We have to service our vets," McCoy said. "We have to be there for those suffering financially, from (brain injuries), from PTSD, whatever. We want to be a one-stop shop. We want to set an example."
The project is being funded by Soldier On with the help of grants and donations and will come at no cost to the county. Soldier On has set up similar programs in Massachusetts.
McCoy hopes the Albany branch will eventually be a campus-like setting, with housing and ways for vets to take classes there through SUNY. The project is ambitious and will take time to complete, McCoy says, but he believes the newly opened resource center will immediately aid the more than 18,000 vets in the county, many of whom face emotional and financial issues that are only fully understood by others who have served their country.
McCoy knows this firsthand. When he returned from Iraq, he said he avoided confronting the toll his tour took on him.
"I saw too many burials of my brothers and sisters oversees. I said I would never go to a VFW post," McCoy said, speaking Sunday to a tent full of generations of veterans in front of the new veterans center. "I just didn't want to deal with what I had to deal with, because it makes you think about stuff. It's easier to shut things down and move on ... you just do the mission and come back."
Problems plaguing returning veterans are well documented: depression, post-traumatic stress, self medication with alcohol and drug abuse, problems finding a home and a job. Many returning troops come from families living below or near the poverty line, making them much more susceptible to those roadblocks.
Having a place where vets can speak with someone who understands what they're going through goes a long way, McCoy said, as many returning troops cannot bring themselves to confide their darkest hours of combat to even their loved ones.
"There is an epidemic of disconnect," said Col. David Sutherland. The special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who focuses on military and family programs gave a rousing speech at Sunday's news conference. Places like the veterans resource center are in place, Sutherland said, to help vets "Achieve what they want to achieve: A balance of education, meaningful employment and access to health care. It takes a whole of society approach."
John Downing, president and CEO of Soldier On, said he wants to help vets of all ages who are suffering now while also keeping those returning from Iraq or Afghanistan from falling into hard times. Of the Vietnam veterans Soldier On has identified in the state, Downing said 90 percent of them try to make a living earning just 30 percent of the state's median income or less.
Another issue for some vets, Downing said, is that some act criminally when they have trouble adapting to life back home, leading to incarceration.
"Veterans are not a protected class of citizens in our society," Downing said. "We all want to think that because we appreciate what they do, that they're special, but they're not protected."