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Mass. agency reaches out to help veterans

Innovations called model for US

Lina Pineda, a veteran of the Iraq War, works to help others facing housing issues.

YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF

Lina Pineda, a veteran of the Iraq War, works to help others facing housing issues.

Richard Yarde returned to his home state of Massachusetts in 1968 after serving as a machine gunner in Vietnam. Between the combat he had seen and the shame of serving in an unpopular war, he said, it took him nearly 30 years to walk into a Veterans Affairs office and seek the help he had earned.

“When I first came home, you didn’t even admit you were a veteran,” said Yarde, 71. “A lot of us came back damaged, and people became recluses. They melted into the woods – they didn’t want to be a part of society.”

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Today, Yarde is the house manager at the Veterans Mansion, a rooming house at the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center in Haverhill, and he volunteers part time at the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services office in Amesbury.

He is one of the many faces of the state’s evolving approach to veterans’ services, which have undergone major innovations in recent years under Secretary Coleman Nee. The agency has developed several groundbreaking programs and partnerships to become a model for other states around the country.

Chief among them are recent initiatives that address veterans’ mental health and housing concerns, two of the biggest issues facing the soldiers returning from the past decade’s conflicts. The programs afford the outreach team a level of proactive intervention previously unseen in the multilayered bureaucracy of veterans’ affairs. The outreach team itself is staffed by veterans with firsthand knowledge of their clients’ concerns.

Lina Pineda, an Iraq War veteran, has been a peer specialist for the housing program for about a year. She is uniquely qualified to help veterans who need housing assistance: she and her young daughter were homeless themselves for a time.

Now she meets with homeless veterans wherever she finds them, on the streets of Boston and across the state.

“We’re bringing the VA to the veterans,” she said recently at the state agency offices downtown. “I make sure all my guys and gals are housed and/or getting the assistance they need.”

At the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans at the VA Medical Center in Bedford, one of three such agencies in the country established in 2009, those programs have garnered attention from other states, said the director, Dr. David Smelson.

“I think the resources and support for veterans in Massachusetts and the commitment by the state government is unprecedented,” said Smelson, who also serves as vice chairman for clinical research in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “They go to practically whatever length possible to help a fellow soldier. I’ve been in awe and inspired by Coleman and his team.”

The effort seems to be paying off. Smelson said the state reduced its homeless population among veterans by 21 percent last year.

One of Pineda’s colleagues, Kevin Lambert, is the department’s director of Special Population Programs and Services, which means he covers a broad range of issues, including homelessness, jail intervention, and education opportunities. Lambert, a 30-year-old Iraq veteran who broke his back in the war, now walks with a cane and uses a service dog, the first graduate of another of the state’s innovations – a canine training program for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

With his black Lab, Ronnie, at his feet, Lambert sat in the cafeteria at the Haverhill outreach center and discussed his passion for the job. If there is some overlap among the services the state provides, he said, the department does not think of that as waste, he said: “That just means there’s no crack for the vet to fall through.”

Under Nee, the department’s peer specialists have been trained to do whatever it takes to help a veteran in need. Sometimes that can mean trying an unorthodox approach.

On one suicide-prevention call, Lambert was quick to act when a despondent, disoriented veteran who had a loaded gun took an interest in Ronnie, the service dog. The soldier eventually agreed to submit to treatment as long as Ronnie went with him, Lambert said.

“If you give the vet a little bit of control and choice, you can absolutely save their life,” he said.

Like his colleagues, Lambert makes no apology for sometimes winging it while helping his fellow veterans. The rapidly changing nature of modern warfare and the so-called “invisible wounds” it can cause mean the US Department of Veterans Affairs and its state-level affiliates have to rethink how to do the job, he said: “We need to meet the needs of the veteran, not make the veteran meet the needs of the system.”

The state agency is working to dismantle the perception that veterans services can be unapproachable, said Kristen Lucier, the service officer in Amesbury. There are more than 200 veterans’ service offices in cities and towns across the state; in other states, that kind of direct connection is typically county-based.

The department has also made great strides in streamlining veterans’ access to benefits. What was once considered a quagmire of bureaucracy has now been simplified enormously by the power of the Internet.

If a veteran is reluctant to seek help, said Lucier, a Navy veteran, the department’s outreach team “will meet you at Dunkin’ Donuts, or in your living room. There’s no wrong door into the system in Massachusetts.”

What officials call a “culture shift” in the department has coincided with a shift in the public’s attitude toward veterans since 9/11, said Yarde. Today, when he walks down the street wearing his black Marine Corps baseball cap, passersby stop and thank him for his service. That never occurred in the years after Vietnam, he said.

Actively engaging the current generation of veterans and tending to their needs is a critical function of today’s government, Lambert said. “Do it now, and you won’t have to do it in 40 years.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.

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