By Erika Webb
War is hell. And for many who serve in the military the aftermath isn't exactly Nirvana.
Haven Recovery Center is working to change that harsh reality for many veterans who struggle with addiction, resultant or triggered mental health issues and homelessness.
"The Veterans Administration Transitional Housing unit helps homeless veterans with histories of addiction recover in a stable and structured environment and strives to give the veterans a smooth and successful transition into permanent housing," according to a Haven Recovery Center news release.
Veterans living in transitional housing learn individual life skills, are linked with ongoing behavioral health treatments based on their specific needs and receive case management services to assist with finding employment, pursuing education or qualifying for benefits.
The operations in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) continue to strain military personnel, returning veterans and their families. Some have experienced long and multiple deployments, combat exposure, and physical injuries, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse website drugabuse.gov.
A 2008 Department of Defense Health Behavior Survey revealed "general reductions" of tobacco and illicit drug use "over time," but reported increases in prescription drug abuse and heavy alcohol use.
"In fact, prescription drug abuse doubled among U.S. military personnel from 2002 to 2005 and almost tripled between 2005 and 2008," the Institute concluded.
Mental illness also is prevalent among military personnel. Another study of returning soldiers revealed 20 percent of active and 42 percent of reserve soldiers required mental health treatment, according to the Institute.
"Drug or alcohol use frequently accompanies mental health problems and was involved in 30 percent of the Army's suicide deaths from 2003 to 2009 and in more than 45 percent of non-fatal suicide attempts from 2005 to 2009."
Amos Nelson served in the army during the Vietnam era and during the Gulf War. He was a staff sergeant and the maintenance supervisor for 63 units at Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Pennsylvania.
He went into the service in 1975 while still in high school, he said in a phone interview.
Mr. Nelson left the military in 1991. He said he was using drugs then, but his disease quickly progressed. The deaths of his parents and a divorce in 1993 proved too much to bear and his drug use intensified.
His drugs of choice were crack cocaine and alcohol.
In 1998, tired of being homeless, physically dependent and spiritually sick, he entered Sid Martin Bridge House in Gainesville.
It was unconditional kindness and compassion given to him by a woman named Betty Robinson that opened the first door to his now eight-year recovery. Ms. Robinson believed in him, helped him get into residential treatment and stuck by his side through thick and thin.
That's what Mr. Nelson does for others, including his fellow veterans, today. The word service has taken on new meaning and restored his life and sanity.
He's on the board of directors at Haven Recovery Center, but once he was a resident there.
"When (the facility which is now The Veterans Transitional House) it was called Passionate House," Mr. Nelson said. "I was one of the first ones ... now the road starts out and gets wide but all we had was that narrow part (leading to) Serenity House. Once you came out of Serenity you had the opportunity to go to Passionate House."
He said the idea for a place to help veterans recover was sparked there.
Though Mr. Nelson wasn't -- in recovery speak -- a first time winner, he started out early on doing service, speaking to struggling addicts and alcoholics with Ms. Robinson.
Mr. Nelson found his way back into recovery, but the death of his ex-wife in 2002 left him despondent and feeling the immense pressure of being a single parent.
"I wound up going back to my hometown and ... people, places and things ... I thought it was, 'Look at me I'm doing good.' I started hanging around the wrong crowd, started drinkin', and next thing you know I started smokin' (crack) again," he said.
Ms. Robinson was there for him again. In 2004, he found himself back in DeLand.
"She got me coming down here to the farm (Serenity House Farms, now Haven Recovery Center) and I did the program here going to CA (Cocaine Anonymous) meetings at the Alamos Club (in Daytona Beach)," he said.
After completing a two-year recovery program at Haven, Mr. Nelson became the representative for CA in Daytona Beach and worked with the Homeless Veteran Program in South Georgia and North Florida.
"I became the representative for CA for the Alamos Club area and went to different meetings ... Pensacola, Boca Raton, talking with vets," he said. "We had a lot of stuff in common. I met brothers I didn't know I had, going through the same things I was. We could relate."
Wanda Strickland, now assistant program supervisor at Haven, was "like a mom" to the men, Mr. Nelson said.
"She did whatever we asked. She was there for us, talked us through a lot and made contacts for us," he said. "She did an outstanding job."
"I would recommend it to any vet that can get into it. They just have to be sincere about making changes in their life," Mr. Nelson said. "They can accomplish goals they've always wanted to ... long term or short term. If you're sincere about it, concentrating and focused, you can knock some of the short term goals out. Some guys finished college while I was in."
His abilities, charisma and leadership skills got Mr. Nelson elected house manager. He ran meetings and "put out work orders for what the guys needed to do to keep the house up."
"Through the VA transitional program I ended up getting an apartment in Daytona under Haven," Mr. Nelson said.
He went to school and became a volunteer, certified to administer HIV/AIDS testing in Volusia County.
"I got a chance to talk to a lot of vets while doing that," Mr. Nelson said. "I got an opportunity to talk to them and tell them no matter what's going on, you can turn your life around."
Along the way he renewed his relationship with the God his parents introduced him to as a child.
"I shared that with (vets). Some believed, some didn't, but it gave me a chance to minister to them and let them know God could change things if they had faith," he said.
Power struggles and racial strife in the military, deaths of loved ones, homelessness, addiction and despair all are part of Mr. Nelson's story.
Where did faith enter?
"I had money in my pocket out there. People now are getting shot. God was with me even though I was in sin," Mr. Nelson said. "I made up my mind I'm not going out there in that world again, not in that fashion. A lot of people say you can't say that, but I promised someone who's been helping me all my life. I got stronger."
Two years ago he got married to "a beautiful Christian wife." The couple lives in DeLand and attends the Greater Union First Baptist church where Mr. Nelson recently became an ordained deacon.
"God put me in this family. He keeps opening doors," Mr. Nelson said. "You can conquer anything if you say enough is enough and you mean it."
His long journey taught him to steer clear of complacency and magical thinking.
"Even though God's opened doors for me and I've accomplished some things life shows up," Mr. Nelson said. "You gotta be strong to survive, strong to move on. Life's gonna show up but you don't have to go out and use over it. No matter where you're at, how good you been, how long you been clean, life still shows up."
Haven Recovery Center, a not for profit behavioral health agency serving adults with complex needs related to substance use disorders and other psychiatric illnesses, offers 188 residential treatment beds to men and women as well as more than 200 transitional and permanent housing beds and outpatient offices in Daytona Beach, DeLand and Deltona.
Veteran Case Management Coordinator Kristen Sims said there are 12 veterans living at the 16-bed transition house.
She said once they've completed Haven's recovery program, veterans are offered numerous services to help them get back on their feet, including bus passes and links to employment.
"Our main goal is for them to leave out of here with permanent housing," Ms. Sims said. "We want to get veterans off the street."