America's other fallen soldiers

Local homes help struggling veterans

Wausau's John Blahuta is a 60-year-old Vietnam-era Army veteran who for most of his life worked as a corporate tax preparer. When he was laid off from his job five years ago, he expected to be able to find work quickly.

"I come from a very hardworking family, a strong work ethic," he said. "I'd rather work than get a handout."

But Blahuta did not find a new job. He was told he was "overqualified" for the clerical and retail jobs for which he applied, he said. His bills began to go unpaid, and more bills were added to those. Eventually he lost most of his possessions and his home.

"I don't have alcohol (addiction)," he said. "I don't have drugs, I don't have mental illness. But I am a homeless veteran."

Memorial Day is a day set aside to honor fallen American veterans -- those who have died in war. But there's another group of fallen vets -- those who face tremendous challenges when their service to the country ends.

Some, like Blahuta, may simply fall on hard times. Many others face substance abuse or mental health issues. Nearly a third of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

"It's bad when all these men and women go over there and serve their country, and then they come back and ... wind up living in the streets or under bridges," said Kelly Ferguson, 44, a house manager at Wausau's Randlin Adult Care Family Homes, which provides transitional housing for veterans and others in need.

Blahuta, who came to Randlin Homes as a resident in October, has been able to apply his professional experience within the organization, and in March he was elected treasurer of Randlin's board of directors.

Rebecca Epperson, 51, of Wausau is another house manager at Randlin Homes, as well as a Navy veteran who served during Vietnam. She came to Randlin as a resident after a period of homelessness, and she has faced physical and mental health issues. But she said the biggest problem among the homeless veterans she sees is substance abuse, particularly alcoholism.

"They can get a job, and they'll have that job for awhile," she said. "Then they start drinking, they relapse. They lose their job. They lose their home, they lose the friends that they just got. They start that cycle all over again. We're here to break that cycle."

Linda Larson Schlitz, who co-founded Randlin Homes with her husband, Ralph, said the organization's environment is crucial to its mission.

"We provide a family environment of people who care about them, who remember their birthdays and celebrate their sobriety days," Larson Schlitz said.

About 25 percent of Randlin's residents are not veterans. Tanya Throop, 33, is Blahuta's daughter, and she has struggled with mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness in her own life. Residency has provided her with structure and help with everything from taking her medications on schedule to learning how to make crafts.

Throop also works on painting plaster figurines in part as a way to learn patience and attention to detail. The homes work with other residents, both veterans and non-veterans, to develop skills that can be applied to other parts of their lives.

The issue of how society should provide for veterans is an ongoing discussion, and organizations like Randlin Homes are only one part of it. In late May, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would expand educational benefits for veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, making them eligible for the equivalent of full tuition at state universities following their service.

Expanded educational opportunities and job training were other subjects mentioned by Randlin staff, including Christine Oestreich, 30, of Wausau, a Navy veteran of the Afghanistan war.

"Places like the (Marathon County) Job Center give opportunities to veterans who are actively looking for jobs," Oestreich said.

Another subject that came up again and again in conversations with residents and staff was the distance most veterans must travel to get medical care. The outpatient clinic for veterans in Wausau has a long waiting list, and is not equipped to treat some conditions. Many are forced to travel to Madison or Tomah to get treatment.

As organizations like Randlin Homes try to meet the needs of homeless veterans in Wausau, Larson Schlitz said veterans are also working in her organization to help one another.

"We couldn't do it if we didn't have veterans helping other veterans," she said.
source: Wausau Daily Herald