This article originally appeared in the September 20, 2004 (Morris County NJ) Daily Record and on the Daily Record web site.

Vets hone their skills while rebuilding lives

Construction team tackles VA hospital project

By Lorraine Ash

U.S. Army Maj. Ralph Owens, with shirttails hanging and a pencil behind one ear, walked the long, quiet halls of Building 53 at the Veterans Affairs hospital in the Lyons section of Bernards. He took stock of his work crew’s progress.

“How are the floor tiles going?” he asked, adjusting his baseball cap as he stopped to quiz 38-year-old Fred Fenner.

“I used to work in the trades,” Fenner said afterward. “Sheetrocking, paving, masonry. Here I’m bringing my skills back up to a level. When I get back out there, they’ll be that much sharper. In the meantime, I’m giving back something that was given to me.

“When I needed help, I found welcome arms here. They gave me love. I make money here, but it’s not all about the money for me.”

Fenner is an Army veteran who worked as a mail clerk in Germany from 1984 to 1987.

Today, as co-owner of O’Craftsman Contractors, Owens hires homeless veterans like Fenner who are in substance-abuse rehabilitation at the hospital’s domiciliary program (known as the dom) to work on his Veterans Construction Team.

The veterans are paid for their work as they learn and build their skills in the facility, which is part of the VA New Jersey Healthcare System. When their time in the four-month “dom” program (domiciliary rehab unit) is up, some stay on and continue to work with Owens. Others don’t.

The Building 53 project is a special one for the construction team since it will become home for 70 homeless veterans, who start moving in today to set up housekeeping and make a new go at life.

Building people

Fred Fenner

Army veteran Fred Fenner lays floor tile in Building 53 at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Lyons in July during renovation of the building, which will serve as a residence for 70 homeless vets. He is part of a construction crew headed by Army Maj. Ralph Owens, co-owner of a construction company. Photo by Dawn Benko/Daily Record

For the work crew, there’s no boss quite like the 54-year-old Owens. No casual visitor would spot him as a graduate of the dom who once was homeless, too.

Because of his rank and experience — he served in special ops with such legendary units as the 101st Airborne, the 506th Infantry and the 75th Rangers, some of the time working shoulder-to-shoulder with current Secretary of State Colin Powell — Owens breaks the mold for homeless vets.

He wouldn’t have any other team working for him, the major said, surveying his crews from afar, though that sometimes means he must rip a job apart to do it over and though it commits him to a lot of time training.

“I have an understanding for what these men and women are going through more than the average citizen,” Owens said. “Making money is not my prime motivator. I am passing on my skills and abilities to help these veterans reclaim their lives.”

His philosophy is clear: He builds the people who build his construction projects. Owens sees his employees as his troops. Being one in a group with a common purpose can be rehabilitative in itself, he said.

“Some of these guys are not used to being part of any kind of team,” he said. “They’re used to surviving on their own in the streets or in whatever homes they had or wherever they came from. For a lot of them, it was individual survival.”

Such was the case with another member of the Veterans Construction Team, 43-year-old Dennis Burleson, originally from North Carolina. Burleson, who graduated the dom and lives in a transitional house in Plainfield, served in the 3rd Armored Division of the Army from 1979 to 1982.

“Tanks is dangerous,” he said. “Everything inside moves. Everything. I would use alcohol to bury the memories. I had a pretty good handle on it, I thought.”

He doesn’t blame his alcoholism on the service because he was making white liquor for his grandfather when he was 11. What the service did, he said, was expose him to things he did not expect and then leave him to cope with them on his own.

Grip of death

It has taken him years to figure out exactly what changed him. During that time he lost his sobriety, his family and his home.

“They say you see death and it traumatizes some people,” Burleson said. “My problem is that I would bury what I’d done and what I seen happen and I seen get messed up and who got sent home with no legs and who got tore up by a tank. There was always death in this crap. And I was always taught that you keep your feelings buried. You don’t tell nobody nothing. You don’t trust nobody.

“I didn’t know no better. I thought God, country, drinking, raising hell — that was just all part of life. But how little did I know that things was fixing to take a drastic change in there. Because I hadn’t experienced anything that had to do with death and it did bother me as time passed.”

Preparation for re-entering civilian life was nonexistent in his day, he said, and he never found a program the caliber of the dom at Lyons to help him in his home state. So he hit the road because it was the only option left for him.

“Done lost my license. Done lost my life. Done lost my wife. Done lost my kids,” he said. “Done lost my whole family.”

He went from state to state, living in motels and getting drunk and passing out on the sides of roads and in ditches. After a time he got used to having nothing. Though he made good money hanging doors in hotels or office buildings, he didn’t make enough to support his drug habit, and it was only a matter of time until he found himself in Newark, where he lived on the streets and in a shelter for a time. He did not have so much as a pencil, a comb, a knife or a dime to his name.

A turn in the road

That’s when he met Claude Wilson, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran who works in the VA New Jersey Homeless Outreach Office in Newark. Through Wilson, Burleson found out about the dom.

“That night I sat there on the bed in the shelter with those 80 guys snoring hard and I just got out of the warehouse, mad, and I thought about it,” he said. “I really did. I says, ‘You know, I really ain’t gittin’ nowhere and I don’t want to go back home. There ain’t nuthin’ there left for me.

“I was sick and tired of living with people, traveling across the states, building motels, hotels, and not seeing nothing but a job site. I was really sick and tired of people not understanding me. The simple fact is they didn’t know who I was. They hadn’t seen what I’ve done. They hadn’t looked at where I been.”

So he agreed to try the dom. At first the campus appeared to him as a surreal paradise. An epiphany came one day early on as he sat on a bench talking to another veteran named Sam.

“A chipmunk runs up and he looks at us kind of cross-eyed. I told Sam, ‘That chipmunk is just as messed up as we are, and where did he come from?’ I didn’t know they had them all over the place,” he said. “I told Sam, I said, ‘I’m gonna make an effort at this.’ ”

Burleson has been sober for 17 months. In the months prior to the opening of Building 53, he has hung doors and cut molding and performed many other building tasks. He makes extra money working extra jobs with Owens. But this time the doors he’s hanging, the very walls themselves, do not seem to press the old feeling of futility into him.

There’s something about veterans building a home for other veterans that makes the place special. Burleson said he tries to blend in wherever he goes, but at Lyons he doesn’t have to try.

“We all got something in common here because we’ve all been in the military,” he said. “We know how to relate to each other.”

The real battle

The Veterans Construction Team is one of several ways veterans in rehab can learn skills and get paid as they labor in Compensated Work Therapy. Other job opportunities are in VA housekeeping, food service and warehouse services; nursing assistance; horticulture through a greenhouse on the Lyons campus; retail sales at the Rainbow Collectibles thrift shop in Bound Brook, and golf driving range maintenance, also at the Lyons campus.

Working productively while being able to kick chemical dependency and make and save money is part of what Owens calls being inside “the bubble” at Lyons. The safe haven of the campus helped him. He still doesn’t know why, exactly, he became addicted.

“Nobody really knows whether you drink your way into it or whether it’s hereditary,” he said. “I can’t say whether my service to my country led me to do things that I can’t live with without relieving the pain from an outside source. For whatever reason, I landed here.”

The real battle homeless veterans fight is inside themselves, he said, adding that he knows enough now to realize the real problem: People use alcohol or drugs to kill or drown some other pain.

“The more you do that, the more pain you generate and the more you have to kill, and it’s an escalating nightmare,” he said. “Living in this bubble for a while gives you the chance to do the inside work you have to do.”

In his life the greatest pain was stirred by what happened to his daughter, his only child, at the age of 25. He recounted his college graduation present to her — a trip across the United States with a friend.

“I wanted her to see how great this country is because I sacrificed a lot for it and I believe in it,” Owens said.

Some 15 months after she completed her tour of the nation, she was legally blind.

“I’ve always been a sentimental bastard,” Owens said, “and I took that so hard I tried to drink it away. I can’t fathom being 25 and blind. I was in the prime of my life at 25. That’s when I was jumping out of airplanes and all that crazy stuff. Put me in the jungle. I’ll do anything you want. I’ll get you home, but, God, leave my daughter alone.”

How the public can help veterans

Become an advocate

Anyone interested in getting involved with helping local homeless veterans on a regular basis can visit the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans at

Donate money

Individuals can write a check payable to “The Commander’s Project” and mail it to New Jersey American Legion Commander’s Project, 135 W. Hanover Ave., Trenton, N.J. 08618. The money will go directly to aid in renovating transitional housing for homeless veterans in North and Central Jersey.

Hire a homeless vet

Employers willing to hire a homeless veteran on a contract basis should contact Kurt Hanscom or John Kuhn at (908) 647-0180, Ext. 4217. Those who want to hire members of the insured Veterans Construction Team should contact Ralph Owens at (908) 304-4866 or Dennis Webster at (908) 304-4865.

Where veterans can find help