A "Healthy Home" for Struggling Vets Opens in Bonham
A "healthy home for heroes" opens in Bonham, to scare away the Boogie Man with compassion, discipline, and the help of a three-legged dog.
Note: Supplemental materials follow this story. Scroll past the story's end for more.
Faith, hope, love. The first three words you see in the living room of Jon Hager's house, carved in small oval plates on a black metal art frame. The words pop against the otherwise bare white wall, and they don't square with the cocktail of assumptions one might make amid the manly décor of this place.
The house is an amalgam of hunting lodge, country estate, efficient design, and soothing tranquility. The assumptions more a mix of what you might think tough men would live like if given the run of a house. For these particular men, tough is about being okay with feeling the pain their individual bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder bring them. There are quite a few tears shed in this place. And many of them happen without the aid of tissues. Hager and his three housemates often block someone from trying to wipe away the tears. It's better, he says, to blow out all the pain.
The house, on East 9th Street in Bonham, is Bunker House – a quiet retreat for military vets who've suffered PTSD and substance abuse and don't want to return to what resident Oswald Cannon Templeton refers to as “the devil's den.” Those places where the rents are low, the temptations are plentiful, and the drugs and booze are easy to score, because the ones who purvey them seem to know exactly where to find broken soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines.
Even for those who have a place to go, he says, the environment might be unhealthy – abusive partners; neighbors who praise vets for their service, as long as those vets come back proud and tall. The ones bent with emotional trauma, well … that can be a different opinion from a different side of one's mouth.
The unhealthy relationships often happen with female vets, Hager says. What upsets him right now is that he doesn't have a home for women vets. Bunker House is a men's-only facility. Hager is looking to build a house for women and is in the process of trying to buy another property in Bonham for them. Several women are apparently waiting for that to happen too.
“I've got a list full of them,” he says of potential female residents. “I could fill up a whole house.”
The idea for Bunker House started for Hager, 52, after his own stint in “the Dom,” the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Domiciliary Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program at Sam Rayburn Memorial Veterans Center in Bonham. Hager's tangle with his personal demons and their minions landed him there after a spate of bad luck that actually happened after his time in the Army. We'll get to that in a moment.
What Hager saw at the Dom was what he calls a “revolving door” of patients coming in, getting treatment, and going out into the world, only to come back in for later treatment. Three or four times, maybe.
“I thought, 'Man, there's got to be a better way,” Hager says. Something better than a cycle of sending treated vets out into the streets with limited resources that consign them to living in the seamier ends of cities like Dallas or Fort Worth, where the VA has other rehabilitation program centers.
To be clear up front, neither Hager nor anyone else at Bunker House has a problem with the VA or its programs. Templeton, 48 and a fellow Army vet, says the Dom's program got him “down from eight pills a day to two.” Many of the original eight were not taken under doctor supervision. We'll get to that in a moment too.
First, a word from the VA. In a statement, Jeffrey Clapper, a public affairs officer and chief communications and community engagement officer for the VA North Texas Health Care System, said the Dom treated 879 vets in fiscal 2017. That's up 69 (or 8.6 percent) over fiscal 2016. Of that total, 517 were “unique admissions,” the first time receiving care within a one year period. Fifty-five were repeat admissions after being discharged. And in fiscal 2015, the average length of stay at the Dom was a little over 77 days.
According to Clapper, “6.25 percent of veterans who received care have returned to care.”
The Bunker House residents have no bad words for the VA, but Hager says he's not so thrilled with how vets grappling with PTSD and addiction problems often have to contend with stereotypes – they're homeless wrecks, they're lost causes, they're dangerous drifters …. Sometimes those descriptors are true. Usually, they're not. But people tend to treat mentally and physically struggling vets with a kind of disgust, Hager says.
If you come home and you're obviously using, we're gonna pack your stuff up, we're gonna cry with you, we're gonna give you a hug, and we're gonna send you on the way, because cancer can't stay in this house.
His answer to that is faith. And hope. And love. But it's also discipline. Bunker House Bonham is the first of what Hager hopes will be several “healthy homes for heroes” in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. And making a home a healthy place for vets means more than hugs. It means you need to have a job, be in school, or be doing volunteer work, and it means policing yourself and your home space.
If you want to live here, you're not going to turn Bunker House into a flop house – the sad fate of so many well-intentioned recovery homes trying to help vets adjust to life post-service, Hager says.
What that means in practical terms is, you will keep your room clean. You will not leave dishes in the sink. And you will definitely not come home drunk or high.
“If you come home and you're obviously using,” Hager says, “we're gonna pack your stuff up, we're gonna cry with you, we're gonna give you a hug, and we're gonna send you on the way, because cancer can't stay in this house.”
That goes for Hager, too. Despite that his name is on the lease, the other residents will vote
him out for at least 30 days if he comes home “cancerous.” Every member of the house has one vote on what to do if someone starts breaking the rules, and if Hager comes home so much as tipsy, he'll have 15 minutes to pack and get his hugs before he goes out the door.
The idea, Hager says, is to create a situation in which the twin pillars of accountability and discipline keep house members on the straight and narrow. Remember, these men have experienced some terrible things and they spent years trying to self-medicate it all away. But, being military men, they're used to responding to discipline. As for accountability, no one in this house wants to disappoint his housemates. And no one wants that good-bye hug, because outside the boundary around Bunker House, compassion and healthy living falls off pretty rapidly.
Hager's descent into drugs and alcohol actually started after his life in the Army. He was a medic in the 1980s, stationed for a time in West Berlin, where his unit guarded the Berlin Wall. After his service, he moved to Oklahoma and was a civilian medic. In 1986, he got a call to a home in Elk City, where a 16-year-old babysitter shot and killed two children he was minding.
The scene sent him looking for solace in chemicals. But things got worse a few years later when Hager broke his neck and back in an accident at an oil rig where he worked. The accident put him in the hospital for eight months. Then, not long after he recovered, a traffic accident put him through the windshield of a truck.
To cope, his need for booze and pills got the better of him until he turned to the VA for help. He got it and sought to keep other vets from having to face a life of tough decisions and temptations. He opened Bunker House in February.
Templeton was among the first to move in. A former communications officer, Templeton was sexually assaulted shortly after entering the Army at age 17. Thirty-one years later he still finds it too painful to discuss without shaking.
For much of that gulf of time, he “danced with drugs and alcohol” and lived what he calls “a bad life, doing bad things.” Before he found Bonham and Hager, he was living in Fort Worth in a bad way. Since, he says, he's been able to stay working (at the Dom, doing housekeeping) and staying clean.
“It's nice to be here,” he says. “I love to come home instead of trying to run away from it every day.”
Substances, of course, are only half the fight. There are the terrors that sometimes visit in the dark. For that, there is the house mascot, Konrade. Konrade is a luxuriant black and fawn Belgian malinois and certified PTSD dog. He likes a fuss over him and tends to whimper if he's not getting loved on.
His pedigree is impressive nevertheless. He was named for his grandfather, a legitimately famous search-and-rescue dog. His father was a bomb dog.
But Konrade's most obvious trait is a recent one. He only has three legs. The right rear leg was lost when he was hit by a car out in front of Bunker House a few months ago. Hager says Konrade was chasing a Chihuahua that strayed too near the property. The chase ended up in the street and Konrade almost bled to death. It took $2,000 to save him.
While he's still a little shaky trying to walk up the back stairs, Konrade is no less spirited than any dog the size of a large Belgian shepherd. And around the house, he comforts and protects the residents day and night – yes, even the dog needs to work to stay here.
While Hager likes to joke that Konrade fits right in among the vets who might be missing part of what they once had, he's not joking about what Konrade brings to the residents.
“When you're having bad dreams or yelling out, he will come and rescue you.” Hager says. Plus, there's this: “Some of us were attacked at night,” he says. “Nightime's sometimes when the Boogie Man comes out [but] we know the Boogie Man can't get us, with him on patrol.”
Hugs, tears, and good vibes aside, Bunker House has its share of critics, Hager says. Some neighbors worry about the place becoming a den of drug addicts. Some think he's wasting his time. Hager relishes proving them wrong by “loving them until they love us.”
In other words, he fights fire with three specific weapons: Faith, hope, and love.
Jon Hager, the founder of Bunker House in Bonham, has had his issues with drugs and alcohol. It's a familiar problem among U.S. military veterans; a way to cope with things experienced while serving and while adjusting to civilian life when the world looks a lot different.
But chemicals are not the only way Hager copes with his PTSD. He also writes poems. He calls them healing.
Listen to Hager read aloud this poem he wrote for his fellow Bunker House residents:
In addition to statistics, the Department of Veterans Affairs provided a full written statement about its programs through the VA Medical Center. Below is the full text of the VA's statement:
Bonham VAMC offers a 192 Bed program, providing Substance Abuse treatment for initial, acute treatment for Veteran struggling with addiction.
PTSD treatment in a closed co-hort model or newly added hybrid model. The cohort model is designed for a group of Veterans to begin programming together and end together. Combination of individual evidenced based therapy and group therapy. The hybrid model is for those Veterans with an immediate need for PTSD treatment or someone who may not be able to manage the intensity of the program. They receive individual therapy for their PTSD in conjunction with their other treatment needs. All PTSD treatment is evidenced based therapy that consists of Cognitive Processing Therapy or Prolonged Exposure. We recently had a provider who completed training in EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) that will be made available in the future. Veterans are able to choose the therapy approach they would prefer.
General Domiciliary programming provides care within 5 tracks of treatment. Trauma: for Veterans pre or post PTSD treatment or a Veteran who does not meet criteria for PTSD but would benefit from receiving trauma therapy. Late Phase: extended substance abuse treatment to allow time for reinforcement of skills learned in the acute phase of treatment and time to practice sober living. Vocational: For Veterans who are working with the Compensated Work Therapy program aligned under mental health. ILS (Independent Living Skills): is for Veterans with a history of homelessness who have an identified housing plan. This program allows them to work in independent living skills and strives to enforce ‘real life’ expectations as well as education/therapy focused on managing and coping independently. Medical: This track is for Veterans with mental health or health diagnoses that prevent them from being able to successfully transfer to the community. Programming is designed to help the Veteran reach their level of independence for successful transfer to the community. These beds are not medical step down beds.
All areas and aspects of the program are geared towards aiding Veterans with successful community reintegration.