By Kerry O'Brien
Out of respect for members of the military and as research to help her better represent veterans and the community as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee, U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, toured the Montachusett Veterans Outreach Center on Veterans Day.
"We need to hear from you what is working and what is not working," the congresswoman said. "On this day, it is so important to reach out and draw attention to veterans and thank them for what they've done."
Rep. Tsongas -- who grew up in a military family with a father who was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force -- thanked those on hand for their service and asked them about their needs and struggles.
On the armed services committee, Rep. Tsongas said she is aiding in an effort to address the issue of sexual assault in the military and to design body armor for women.
"There's work to be done and I appreciate you leading the way," Rep. Tsongas told MVOC resident Doris McShine, who served in the Army and the Marine Corps. "They need to make a culture change because they need all of you."
MVOC Program Director Trudy Dould said roughly 90 percent of the center's clients have post-traumatic stress disorder, and approximately 10 to 20 percent of female clients have experienced sexual assault.
"There has not been enough done for our female veterans," said MVOC case manager Sarah Pinkerton, who is also a marine and Iraq veteran.
Mayor Mark Hawke told Rep. Tsongas that Gardner makes a concerted effort to take care of its veterans.
"If you add up the veterans' services line item for the communities of Salem, Fitchburg and Leominster, alone Gardner's is greater," the mayor said. "Last year, our veterans' services (budget) was $720,000, and we only get a 25 percent reimbursement."
However, while the community takes pride in providing for veterans, Mayor Hawke said it should be a greater responsibility of the federal government.
"We all support the veterans, but it's never the cities and towns that start a war ... and it's almost like we get punished for it," he said.
Local legislators stated that MVOC -- which received a 2013 Community Development Block Grant for employment training programs for veterans -- is a hub for veterans' services in the region.
"From the outside it's a very unassuming building, but (MVOC Executive Director) Charles (Bollinger III) and his staff are the ones we call when we need something for the veterans," said state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster. "I don't know what we'd do without them."
As officials toured the food pantry and transitional and permanent housing, Mr. Bollinger detailed the services the center provides, but indicated there are still other needs for which funding is not available.
"There are so many things we could fund that don't get funded," he said. "In the future, we want to provide family housing. That's something we'd like to get. And we take them on sober activities because many of them are recovering alcoholics or drug abusers, and that's a service that we offer that we don't get funded for."
Rep. Tsongas represents the state's 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses 37 communities and added Gardner as a result of recent redistricting. Monday was the congresswoman's first visit to MVOC's main campus in Gardner.
"I wanted to come because I heard a lot about the center," she said.
After hearing the constituents' needs, Rep. Tsongas said she plans to review the federal Department of Defense budget to see if there is more that can be done for local veterans.