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Motorcycle riders encouraged to 'Soldier On'

Date: 7/19/2010

July 19, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

GREATER SPRINGFIELD -- Motorcycle riders are asked to take a ride on Aug. 8 to the Soldier On campus near the entrance of Look Park in Northampton to help raise money for the program.

Jack Downing, the president and CEO of Soldier On, told Reminder Publications the program that helps homeless veterans is operating at 111 percent capacity every day, and outside fundraising is necessary to pay for the expenses not covered by government funding.

In what is expected to be an annual event, riders are asked to register by July 24 online at or by calling 441-1118. Riders can also register at First American Insurance on Front Street, Chicopee.

The cost is $25 per rider and $15 per passenger. The registration fee includes dog tags, food and music. Those who register before July 24 will also receive a free T-shirt.

George Hinckley, the vice president of treatment services, said the riders and routes to get to the campus can come from anywhere, but it's important to be at the Soldier On campus by 1 p.m. on Aug. 8.

Downing and Hinckley said the idea for the ride came from the support Solider On has received at its Pittsfield facility from Berkshire County motorcycle clubs.

It is a sobering statistic Downing presents: veterans have three times the potential to be homeless than the average citizen.

On any given evening there are more than 275,000 homeless vets and Downing's organization is making a difference in their lives by changing the way they are helped with a program that emphasizes a holistic approach of housing, food security, job training and addiction and mental health counseling.

The success of the approach has attracted veterans from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, Hinckley said. He added he recently spoke to a veteran in Florida who will be coming here for the program.

"Not a one is turned away," Downing said. "That's why we operating at 111 percent capacity."

He said the former models of dealing with homelessness haven't worked and that services have to be directed toward where people live and offered to the population at greatest risk.

Downing said there is "an expanding pool of veterans, but the funding is not going to expand at the same rate." The program's funding comes from state and federal sources.

Downing said the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created new challenges for veterans and the programs that assist them.

He noted that 21 percent of the troops on the ground in the nation's two war zones are women -- "a radical change" -- many of who are heads of household with children. He predicted that more women with their families would be seeking shelter.

He said that before the current conflict the average veteran -- many of whom dated back to the Vietnam War era -- took an average of seven years before the problems confronting them caused homelessness. Now that period has accelerated to two to three years.

He said the illusion of this current war is that soldiers feel they have control over their lives and relationships back home through cell phone calls and e-mail, but they really don't. The result, Downing said, is "difficult, really, really difficult."

Downing said, "The real total cost of a conflict can't be measured until 60 or 70 years later at the end of that generation."