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Vet center faces new battles

Veterans, increasing in number, call it "priceless." But funding is being cut.

Iraq veteran Dave Albright (right) and counselor Dave Douglas, a Vietnam veteran, at the Veterans Multi Service and Education Center.
Iraq veteran Dave Albright (right) and counselor Dave Douglas, a Vietnam veteran, at the Veterans Multi Service and Education Center.Read more

When he sleeps, Dave Albright, 25, has nightmares that he is back in Iraq. When he is awake, his mind is still at war.

The former Marine drives in the middle lanes of highways to avoid suspicious objects. He surveys the tops of buildings for snipers.

When Albright returned home in 2005, his father-in-law, a Vietnam veteran, told him to go to the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center, where he could get counseling and help with veterans benefits.

"It's priceless," he said of the assistance and counseling he has received at the multi-service center. Without it, "I'd probably be lost in the system."

Albright, who lives in Tacony with his wife and son, is part of the growing wave of veterans coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan and showing up at places like the center, at Fourth and Florist Streets in Old City.

But as the need for veterans services increases, the Philadelphia center has suffered federal funding cuts.

"It's almost like Vietnam," said Edward J. Lowry, the center's chief executive officer. "We thought we'd be ready. We thought we'd learned from what happened back then."

Since 2005, the center - which served 3,800 veterans, including 80 from Iraq and Afghanistan, last year - has lost $736,000 from the U.S. Department of Labor for job training and placement.

In response to an Inquirer request regarding a $250,000 grant the department decided not to renew, the department replied in a statement that the multi-service center was among 52 applicants and that 26 were selected. The Philadelphia center "did not rate high enough to be competitive in that group," the department said. It did not specify how the center failed to be competitive for a grant it had won previously.

On top of the loss of that funding, a $550,000 earmark grant will expire June 30. The chance of its renewal vanished when Rick Santorum, its sponsor, lost his Senate reelection bid last year, Lowry said.

Making things worse for the center, state funding has dwindled over the last decade from $272,000 to $155,000 in the next fiscal year.

Before the cuts, the budget for the multi-service center, including transitional-housing facilities, was $3.2 million, with about 85 percent from federal sources.

"We have no guarantees we will have an employment and training program beginning in July," Lowry said.

Last July, after he learned that he had lost a large chuck of federal funding, Lowry laid off 15 of 30 staffers at the center.

Scrambling for money, he pleaded with elected officials and organized a doo-wop festival. Through donations and fund-raisers, he was able to hire back 10 staffers.

But with a new fiscal year looming and money running out, Lowry is again looking at cutting back services.

The multi-service center was founded in 1980 to help homeless and jobless Vietnam veterans. It has expanded to cover veterans of all eras and has opened transitional-housing facilities in Chester County.

A day program at the Old City headquarters offers homeless vets meals, showers, clothing, medical care and referral services. The center also provides computer-use and computer-repair training and job placement.

Already, computer classes designed to last 10 weeks have been scaled back to six. And the demand far exceeds what is available.

A class starting next week has more than 60 applicants for 25 slots.

Constant threat

Sunday was Brendan Dooley's 24th birthday.

He spent two birthdays in Iraq.

As a member of the Marine Third Amphibious Assault Battalion, Dooley fought in the 2003 invasion. He returned in 2004 to fight in Fallujah.

"The second tour was horrible," he said.

There was the inevitable combat and death - including the loss of friends - but Dooley also had to endure the constant threat of suicide attacks and roadside bombs.

"You could never let your guard down over there," he said. "I was numb to the rest of the world."

When he went home to Boston, he began seeing a psychiatrist. "I couldn't sleep, and when I did, I had nightmares," he said. He drank to pass out.

Last July, he moved to Tacony to live with his girlfriend, who is Dave Albright's sister-in-law. The same man, Ed Slavin, who told Albright to visit the multi-service center gave Dooley the same advice.

"He didn't want the same thing that happened to him happen to [us] as well," Albright said.

Both Dooley and Albright work with Dave Douglas, 61, who is their benefits counselor at the center and is a national service officer with the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Douglas helped them navigate the bureaucratic maze of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and his help was invaluable, Albright said. "If you're trying to tackle the VA on your own, it's impossible," Albright said.

Twice in the last two years, Douglas was threatened with having his job reduced to part-time because of the funding cuts.

That threat remains.

Sharing with others

Since moving to Philadelphia, Dooley hasn't been able to get a job.

He does hope to become a plumber, and Lowry is trying to help get him into the union.

Dooley suffers from post-traumatic-stress disorder and sees a psychiatrist at the multi-service center, as does Albright.

Albright is coping better - "hiding it better," he says - and works as a pipefitter at the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard. But he feels withdrawn and alienated.

He rarely goes out to socialize. "I don't even feel like I'm on the same wavelength, even with my family," he said.

But at the multi-service center, he can talk to vets about things he can't with share with others.

Matthew Boyle, 37, understands. A native of Tacony, he fought in the first Gulf War in 1991 with the Marines.

He lost his job and marriage and become a homeless heroin addict before he came to the center.

"I don't know what I would've done without this place," he said.

His assignment in Kuwait was to destroy Iraqi tanks. That changed him forever. "I fired missiles at tanks. Now I've got to drive past what I just did," he said, referring to the carnage. "That's the stuff that stays with me."

Nonetheless, when he thinks about what the new generation of vets are going through, he is humbled.

"My personal experience was 100 hours," he said, referring to the time it took to complete the ground campaign in 1991.

"My heart goes out to these guys."