Residents of veterans transitional living center saluted

The Billings Gazette

by Ed Kemmick

Patric Watson was in bad shape in August. His time at the Montana Rescue Mission was up and he had lived in his van for two days. He didn't know where he was going to go.

But he remembered hearing about Independence Hall, a transitional living center in the Heights with beds for 20 veterans.

“I called here and they had an opening and they got me in the same day,” Watson said Thursday.

Three months later, the 57-year-old Vietnam veteran has a part-time job, he's been thoroughly checked out by physical and mental health professionals, and he hopes to be renting his own apartment within a couple of weeks.

“Thank God for miracles,” he said. “It's been a blessing.”

Watson shared his story during a Veterans Day open house at Independence Hall on Thursday. The center opened a year ago at 710 Lake Elmo Drive, owned and operated by the Volunteers of America and partly funded by the Veterans Administration.

In addition to saluting the resident veterans on the day of remembrance, VOA representatives thanked Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., for his help and they thanked the Exchange Clubs of Billings for their recent donation of a Freedom Shrine — a collection of facsimiles of the nation's founding documents and historical writings.

A representative of the Exchange Clubs went one better and presented Bill Holder, director of veterans services, with a check for $4,000. The Kiwanis Clubs of Billings were also thanked for their recent donation of two large bulletin boards.

Heath Steel, vice president of operations for the VOA of Wyoming and Montana, said the organization also opened a 10-bed veterans center in Sheridan, Wyo., last year, as part of the VA's five-year plan to end homelessness among vets. At both centers, veterans can stay for up to two years as they work toward self-sufficiency.

Steel told people at the open house that the 30 beds in Sheridan and Billings are important, but “that's a very, very small percentage of the men and women veterans who sleep on the ground here in Montana and Wyoming every night.”

Tester also spoke briefly, saying how impressed he iswith the progress that had been made since he attended the grand opening of Independence Hall a year ago. The country is obligated to get homeless veterans back into the mainstream, Tester said, “and this place makes that happen.”

Watson's story is evidence of that. He said he was born in Big Timber, where his Scottish grandfather homesteaded, and Watson came home to Montana after serving in Vietnam from 1972 to 1975.

He moved to Helena and worked for Burlington Northern Railroad for 13 years, after which he was a concrete worker in Billings for for 15 years. When his mother's health started declining, Watson said, he took more and more time off work, eventually caring for her full time. When his mother died a year and a half ago, “everything kind of went downhill from there.”

That's when he found himself jobless and nearly broke, and when he first spent time at the shelter.

“It's amazing how in the blink of an eye your life can just get turned upside down,” he said.

But things have been looking up since he came to Independence Hall. Through a training program called Experience Works, he has a part-time job at the Salvation Army, and through a program sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development he is getting a housing voucher and is on a waiting list to get his own apartment.

“Within two weeks I should have my own place and have my feet back on the ground again,” he said.

In the meantime, he's been enjoying living with other veterans and helping some of the younger men who served in other wars.

“Everybody knows everybody's history pretty much, and we all look out for each other,” he said.