MONTROSE – What if there was a community that welcomed wounded veterans with open arms? A place that returns to the soldiers the excitement, purpose and camaraderie they had while serving their country and provides the necessary services for them to move forward with their civilian life. What if that community was Montrose?
It's a big project that requires a grassroots effort, say the members behind Welcome Home Montrose. And it's a concept that involves every aspect of the community to be successful, including infrastructure, housing and transportation; mental, physical and spiritual support units; governments and private businesses; and recreational and service clubs.
“I don't believe we are short of services that enable us to do this. …We have the essential elements here, which I believe are underutilized,” said Sandy Head, executive director of Montrose Economic Development Corporation and a Welcome Home Montrose boardmember.
The vision of Welcome Home Montrose is to create a no-barriers city that meets the fundamental needs – physical and financial comforts, mental and physical health, purpose and meaning, faith and inspiration, family and friends, recreation and relaxation – of the wounded warriors of the armed forces.
This idea first came to Montrose business owner and community leader Melanie Kline after she watched a November 2011 morning television special where 21-year-old Todd Love, a U.S. Marine and triple amputee, started his healing process when given the opportunity to kayak through an organization called Team River Runner.
“It was the first time that these soldiers had a face for me,” Kline said. “They are all coming home and what's their life going to be like? One percent of Americans serve, so when they come home, they are isolated and don't have each other.”
Kline was on fire with what she believed was her biggest idea ever, and since, the pieces have fallen together.
Kline started gathering support from every corner of the community, formed a board of directors and established Welcome Home Montrose as a nonprofit.
The organization's concept is that of a circle with the wounded warrior and his or her needs as the central focus. The services and agencies interacting to provide for those needs orbit around the center and the benefits to the whole community complete the outside of the circle.
Welcome Home Montrose has a unique circle of passionate people that make up its directors and focus group advisory board. Those leaders are studying Montrose's strengths, current services and gaps.
Montrose resident Gary Gratton is looking at veteran services.
“I'm here to make sure what they already need is here. We need to be able to take care of where they are before we add more,” Gratton said. “And the more vets we get here, the more we can help, as it is really difficult for someone with PSD, for example, to talk to someone who has not been in combat. They don't understand.”
Gratton served 27 years in the military and is the commander of the Montrose chapter of the Disable American Veterans.
“I've seen a lot of carnage and people hurt mentally and physically and have no idea what they can do,” he said.
Gratton has found a few gaps, such as no local VA-approved electric wheelchair repair shop and an overburdened county VA service officer, but Montrose does have a good hospital and the start of a transportation system in place, he said.
Gratton, who also is the mission director for Christ Church of the Valley, said he sees a disconnection between mental health services and spiritual healing.
“Mental health services are run by the state…and with separation of church and state, is missing the faith side. Churches need to step up and help these guys and work with these mental health programs,” he said.
Boardmember and entrepreneur Doug Kiesewetter agrees.
As a Vietnam-era man, he saw the horrors that soldiers returned home to after the war, and as a father of an Army Green Beret, he wants this generation of soldiers to have a proper homecoming.
But Kiesewetter's main reason for joining the team is that he believes the best way for America to honor its veterans is to give them a future.
“The government is good at providing institutional solutions to physical needs, but unless we address the emotional and spiritual needs simultaneously, it's a sterile program,” Kiesewetter said. “It's like a pro athlete that at 35 finds himself washed up, asking what he is going to do that will give him the same intensity and self-worth.”
And in a society that has become mobile to the point where many soldiers don't have the security of family or community units to return home to, providing such an environment is essential, he said.
“They get lost as everyone else continues with their lives,” Kiesewetter said.
The Welcome Home Montrose members will continue to explore services and gaps over the next several months in hopes of bringing all the information together into a feasibility study, Kline said.
Welcome Home Montrose will hold a public meeting on March 14 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Montrose Pavilion to introduce the program to the community. The organization also will solicit volunteers to participate in a two-day focus meeting in April, where each circle of need will be explored further to make sure a wounded warrior can succeed in the program.
Many of these needs are well known by Montrose resident Mike Will.
Will walks on a prosthetic leg, the result of surgery complications from a high school injury.
Along with creating new prosthetic equipment to make life easier for him and others, Will has decided to help with the Welcome Home Montrose mission.
“It limits you as much as you want it to limit you,” Will said about his disability.
Will wasn't always so positive, however. After losing his foot, he hit a pit of depression that grabbed onto him, and his addiction to the narcotics that he used for pain kept him there.
“I found out what it was like to be on the bottom and have to scratch my way out — it's a unique prospective,” Will said. “When your world is upside down, you have to make a decision one day to give up or fight.”
Will wants Montrose to be a place where amputees fight, and he believes almost all the resources to do so are here. Will said he is dedicated to helping businesses and others understand how people with disabilities can meaningfully contribute to a job and their community.
Job creation and economic development would be a byproduct of Welcome Home Montrose, according to the organization.
In the short term, they would like to bring in a group of disabled veterans this summer to test the organization's model and provide feedback.
Hotels and restaurants would see an immediate return on their visits, Head said. But long term, these veterans would need housing, which could help with foreclosed properties and boost construction as these homes would need to be adapted to fit the veteran's lifestyle.
These soldiers would utilize the public transit system and health clubs, she said. And new businesses also could start that design and test special equipment that amputees need to participate in recreational events, such as the prosthetic arm that allowed Love to enjoy kayaking, Head said.
The organization also has the support of local governments; the county, city and Downtown Development Authority all passed a resolution in support of Welcome Home Montrose on March 5.
Montrose City Manager Bill Bell said he believes this concept could fit with the city's economic development plans. He admits there would be added costs, as the city currently only meets the minimum Americans With Disabilities Act requirements. A no-barriers city would entail the local government taking a step further to initiate more functional ADA guidelines. But overall, it could work well for Montrose, Bell said.
“First, we have every single type of adaptive sport right here. So, we are starting off pretty well,” he said. “We also have high unemployment and there is opportunity to bring in new facilities…and we have a caring community.”
Such a program does require a reality check, Head said, and the board recognizes that with these soldiers may come serious issues such as substance abuse, as well as the possibility that the program could be abused by its users. Boardmembers have responded by saying that both issues are addressed through the very nature of the program.
“What if Montrose could be what these soldiers fought for?” Kline asked.