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Jaffrey

Iraq veteran  spreads hope  after struggle

  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Veteran Ryan Bell, a Jaffrey native, talks about his work with Southwestern Community Services of Keene and the issue of veterans homelessness in Cheshire County.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

As a paratrooper in Iraq, Jaffrey native and 2000 Conant High School graduate Ryan Bell had a lot of close calls, but none that caused him significant physical injury. Bell said Tuesday he is thankful for each day since his return home seven years ago, even the bad ones that were clouded by drug and alcohol addictions it took him years to shake.

Bell remembered the ridiculous questions he got from people every day after he returned to the U.S. in 2006 — five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. prompted him to join the U.S. Army and introduced him to a world beyond New Hampshire’s borders for the first time.

“They would ask how many people I killed,” Bell said, noting that many never thought to ask about the comrades he lost. And even if they did ask, would they understand?

“I had a close friend die in Iraq,” he said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him.”

After leaving the army, Bell didn’t return to New Hampshire right away; he went to Kansas with a friend he had met in service. But Bell said he now realizes the move was an attempt to ignore reality and forestall dealing with the post-traumatic stress disorder he was battling. Self-medication seemed like an easy solution, Bell said, but the truth was it stopped him from seeking the help he needed and, brought him to the brink of homelessness.

When Bell moved back to his hometown of Jaffrey a few years ago, he said his family stepped in and ensured he got professional counseling.

“I got really drunk one night and ended up opening up to my parents. They strongly recommended that I seek counseling at Monadnock Family Services,” Bell said of the Keene-based mental health agency. “It did help me get back on track. I still have my hang-ups, but I’m out there working everyday. I’ve experienced a lot of things my [homeless] clients have. I’m only 32, but I’ve lived the life.”

For more than two years, Bell ran the drop-in center at the Keene-based Hundred Nights — which provides shelter to anyone in need from Dec. 21 through March 31 — and said the center served about 20 to 25 people a day in the two-and-half years prior to February, nearly half of them veterans like himself. In February, Bell, who now lives in Surry, joined Southwestern Community Services as the agency’s emergency housing coordinator and homeless outreach worker.

Through his work, Bell said he wants to provide that critical support he was once afraid to ask for, and hopes that his story will help others who have lost hope.

“The [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] will tell you that one out of every four who is homeless is a vet. I argue that half of those homeless any given night is a veteran,” he said.

As an emergency housing coordinator, Bell said his goal is to provide aid to as many people as he can and rehouse those veterans who are having difficulty staying afloat and supporting their families.

“Growing up in Cheshire County, I was aware of the drug issues back then and I know how they can go hand-in-hand with hopelessness,” he said. “I look at Jaffrey as my turf, I want to give back to my community.”

Last month, Southwestern Community Services learned it had been awarded a $263,000 grant to help keep local veterans in their homes and off the streets. The funding, administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is part of the federal agency’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, which seeks to help nonprofit organizations prevent at-risk veterans from losing their homes.

The grant will allow Southwestern Community Services to provide financial assistance to more than 55 veterans and their families, said Laurie Saunders-Jewett, director of the organization’s housing stabilization services. “Veterans tend to not ask for help. This is a chance to let them know that we are here and there is help available,” she said.

This is the first grant of its kind the agency has received, Saunders-Jewett said, noting the distribution of funds is expected to begin Oct. 1.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, between 423 and 600 homeless veteran households are located in New Hampshire and an additional 7,175 households are at risk of homelessness. The state also has the third highest percentage in the nation of low-income veteran renter households, with moderate to severe housing affordability problems.

Mary Drew, welfare director for the towns of Jaffrey, Rindge, Fitzwilliam and Richmond, said in a recent interview that veterans often return home with post-traumatic stress disorder and/or other mental health issues, which lead to substance abuse. “Without outreach, intervention and treatment, the population will not be served properly and get the services they need,” she said. “It’s a great disservice to our military people that we don’t make them more of a priority.”

Drew said she has seen an approximate 30 to 40 percent increase this year in requests for shelter and transitional housing over 2012 requests. The economy is improving, she noted, but the quality of jobs offered are still low-wage earning positions, and not enough to cover many basic needs of local families.

Linda Harris, executive director of Shelter From the Storm in Jaffrey, said last week that there has been a 60 percent increase in 2013 in the number of people applying for housing and support through the nonprofit organization compared with last year. “This percentage only covers seven months and will continue to rise through December,” she said.

Only one local veteran she knows of has sought services through the shelter’s transitional housing program, Harris said. But the veteran eventually left the Monadnock region where he grew up in order to seek more comprehensive help from Nashua-based Harbor Homes, which offers short-term help for homeless veterans.

The N.H. Department of Health and Human Services released its annual “Point-in-Time” report earlier this year, giving a snapshot of the state’s homeless population. The one-day count, which was conducted on Jan. 23, estimates that there are at least 2,576 homeless people in the state, an increase over a 2012 estimate of 2,438 people.

But the report doesn’t provide the full picture. In Cheshire County overall, the number of sheltered and unsheltered people are slightly down in 2013 as compared with 2012, despite an increased need expressed by those in the area for transitional housing and services, according to local experts. And the need is higher in the Monadnock region than the county numbers show.

Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or adandrea@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @alyssadandrea.

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