March 19, 2008 – Merry Lane, a cul-de-sac shaded by redwoods in Sonoma County wine country, would seem a pleasant place to recover from the psychic wounds of war. Nadia McCaffrey’s dream is to set up a group home there for veterans plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder.
But she is running into stiff resistance from the neighbors. They not only object to the brand-new structure itself, which looks like a four-story apartment house wedged amid their cabins, they are also worried that deranged veterans will move in.
At a community meeting in December, “one person was concerned that even firecrackers would set these people off,” said Andrew Eckers, 54, who lives across the street.
McCaffrey, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004, said she has tried to reassure the neighbors, but “they are afraid of it because they don’t want to understand it.”
Projects similar to McCaffrey’s have cropped up in other communities across the country, with some also raising concerns from neighbors, in part because of the many news accounts of traumatized veterans committing suicide or murder.
“We’re all, frankly, failing in properly educating society about what PTSD is and what its effects are,” said Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, a veterans advocacy group.
McCaffrey wants to set up at least three group homes around the country where vets with PTSD could live temporarily, and virtually for free, while they study at a college or work at a farm. Donations are paying for the projects, she said.
In Guerneville, a community of about 2,500 where the Russian River draws tourists in the summer, the light green building nestled into a carved-out hillside stands empty.
The county issued a stop-work order because the project exceeded the scope of the plans that were filed, said Shems Peterson, Sonoma County supervising building inspector. Among other things, the project had unauthorized plumbing. Also, a wall meant to divert landslides was deemed insufficient.
Neighbors have raised complaints about the cutting down of several redwoods to make way for the home, the lack of parking and the size of the building, which would house a half-dozen veterans.
“They are inappropriate buildings for the neighborhood. They’re not single-family residences,” said Mark Mondragon, 41. “This could have been Grandmothers for Harmonious Peace and it wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Jan De Wald, who lives a couple houses down Merry Lane, said too many questions remain unanswered about the project, including who sits on the board, who is the president and what is the staffing.
Most residents said worries about unhinged veterans are not driving the opposition. Eckers emphasized that his primary concern is that the project would open the door to more apartment buildings. But he also raised questions about the screening and supervision of the veterans.
“Generally PTSD guys are normal people,” Eckers said. But he added: “Some are shell-shocked and they need to be in an institution.”
McCaffrey said screening would be done by veterans and a psychiatrist, and supervision would come from volunteers from a nearby veterans clinic.
“We will not accept anyone who’s not completely functional,” she said.
Rogelio Martinez, 26, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Airborne Ranger, said he was diagnosed with PTSD and sought counseling at the urging of his older brother, a military officer. But he said he would have benefited from the type of group housing that McCaffrey is proposing.
“If it wasn’t for my brother, I might be one of those homeless vets on the street,” Martinez said in a telephone interview from San Antonio. “A place like that would be ideal for a person like me or a person in my shoes who didn’t have someone to lean on like an older brother to get help.”