Wounded Warriors wins honor
Founder talks about problems local vets face
Something a doctor said on the golf course roughly 20 years ago stuck with Dale Mullin.
The country will face a crisis with combat veterans struggling in civilian life, the doctor said.
“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Mullin, a Naples retiree, said. “He knew exactly what he was talking about.”
It was not the doctor’s words that lead Mullin, 72, to launch Wounded Warriors of Collier County in 2010. Rather, one thing led to another after he organized a golf fundraiser to support post-9/11 veterans.
The charity has raised more than $1.2 million to help fund organizations that serve post-9/11 veterans. More recently, it is becoming a direct provider of assistance to homeless veterans.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the mainstream healthcare system is not addressing the complex and immediate needs of combat veterans who suffer post traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries, Mullin said.
“It’s at an epidemic level that the VA is not equipped to deal with and that’s the bottom line,” he said. “And now it’s down at the community level and communities are not equipped to deal with it. But they live among us. They have families. Do you ignore it?”
A retired Avon executive accustomed
Mullin and Wounded Warriors of Collier are being recognized by the David Lawrence Center at its annual Recovery Month awards ceremony Sept. 19
to finding solutions to business issues, Mullin is using his business mindset to get things done, said Collier County Judge Janeice Martin.
Martin, who runs the county’s diversion courts for mental health, substance abuse and veterans, said Mullin has been a critical part of the effort to take on veterans’ needs, she said.
“He doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and he doesn’t scare easily,” Martin said. “The level of dedication and commitment is extraordinary and unusual.”
The charity is tackling transitional housing support for veterans going through substance abuse or mental health programs.
It is lobbying for a veterans’ caseworker at the comprehensive mental health complex on the county’s drawing board with some of the proceeds from the 1% sales tax hike approved by voters in 2018.
Mullin and Wounded Warriors of Collier are being recognized by the David Lawrence Center at its annual Recovery Month awards ceremony Sept. 19 to honor individuals and organizations who contribute in various ways to the recovery community.
Two others are being recognized. They are Capt. Anthony Maro, a Collier County Emergency Medical Services liaison to recovery services in the community, and Maria Metchear, a volunteer who helps runs group meetings for David Lawrence.
What he learned in Vietnam
Raised in Kansas City, Kansas, Mullin enlisted in the U.S. Army at 19. He was sent to Saigon in 1967 during the Vietnam War and trained for human resources work. That kept him from active combat duty.
After witnessing the Tet Offensive in 1968 in Saigon, he realized how combat veterans struggle watching friends dying a few feet away and taking lives of the enemy who nonetheless are human beings. It becomes a burden they can’t shake for the rest of their lives, he said.
“You realize freedom is not free, there is a price to pay,” he said. “You understand the tragedy of war.”
After graduating from the University of Kansas on the GI Bill, Mullin went into the business world.
For 25 years he lived in the New York City area and worked at Avon, the beauty products company. He was responsible for worldwide logistics needed to move products and people.
He and his wife, Maria Mullin, retired to Naples 17 years ago. He spent his days golfing and fishing. That was destined to change.
“I was becoming increasingly aware of what these young men and women (veterans) were facing when they were coming home from these wars,” he said. “People were not aware of the unique injuries they sustained, whether they were visible or invisible wounds of war.”
He decided to organize a golf tournament fundraiser to support local combat veterans. It was intended to be a one-time event to clear his conscience, he said.
Mullin was caught off guard by the community’s outpouring. The event raised $37,000. People wanted to help so he and the other organizers kept up with more fundraisers.
Wounded Warriors of Collier was founded as a nonprofit organization to keep raising money and give the effort structure. Mullin’s wife also serves on the board.
He met with officials at David Lawrence, who told him the top need for young combat veterans is transitional housing so they can get mental health or substance abuse treatment.
He learned 100 veterans annually are arrested in Collier for substance abuse or other minor offenses, and many cycle through homelessness and jail.
Martin, the Collier judge, told him the same thing about housing support, Mullin said.
“I left that meeting grinding,” Mullin said. “I live in a county that doesn’t even provide a bed for a homeless veteran who is looking for help but has no place to sleep? That was very disturbing to me.”
That was in early 2018. He called Martin back and said Wounded Warriors of Collier would take on the challenge of transitional housing.
Mullin estimates he now spends 40 hours a week on behalf of Wounded Warrior’s causes.
The toll of multiple tours of duty
Many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan served multiple tours of duty and came home with complex medical and mental health issues that need prompt attention, he said.
The VA lacks the manpower and resources to deal with it, other than medicating veterans, he said. There are few professionals in private practice who have the specialized training in combatrelated disorders, he added.
“Do you know where veterans are killing themselves?” he said. “In the parking lots of VA hospitals.”
According to VA statistics there were 19 suicides from October 2017 to November 2018 on VA campuses, according to The Washington Post in February. Seven occurred in the VA parking lots.
On average, 7,300 veterans die from suicide each year nationwide, and 600 of them die in Florida, according to officials with the Tampa region of VA Sunshine Healthcare Network in a guest editorial in the Naples Daily News.
“The VA alone cannot achieve effective or lasting reductions in the veteran suicide rate,” the guest editorial said. “To make a real impact, federal, state and local providers of resources must partner together, pool resources, and coordinate care and delivery of services efficiently.”
Home Base, a joint program of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Red Sox Foundation, operates in Collier and is making strides by sending local veterans to a two-week intensive treatment program at Mass General, Mullin said.
The catch is the veterans come home and lack access to after-care to keep up the progress they made at Mass General. That’s compounded by some not having a stable place to live, Mullin said.
Housing is a barrier
Mullin initially wanted to find a group house for local combat veterans to help them get enrolled and succeed through the county’s veterans court or one of the other diversion courts.
When a suitable residence was not coming together quickly, Wounded Warriors of Collier opted to contract for three beds in a certified recovery house for men in East Naples. The recovery house is run by Nextep, a company that operates in Lee and Collier counties.
Veterans typically stay in the house three to five months, Mullin said. Eight veterans have completed their treatment plan with the help of the transitional housing.
“So far things are going well,” Robert Raab, director of Nextep, said.
Katie Burrows, a David Lawrence supervisor for the mental health center’s role in the diversion courts, said she’s been impressed. One veteran had a relapse.
“They are doing exceptionally well and I attribute that to the house and to Nextep,” she said. “It’s really been life changing to the veterans we serve in the treatment courts.”
Recently, Mullin said, he stumbled on a “perfect house” in the River Park neighborhood in the city of Naples to serve as a group home. It has five bedrooms that could accommodate eight veterans. The plan is to lease it for a year and buy it.
He said he doesn’t anticipate any regulatory roadblocks from the city because he believes the group home would be protected by the federal Fair Housing Act. It is unclear whether any city approvals are needed. “I don’t see how the city of Naples could say no,” he said.
Wounded Warriors is coordinating with the Hunger & Homeless Coalition of Collier County for a more detailed look at homeless veterans.
By one estimate, there are roughly 40 homeless veterans but that may be too low.
“The Collier County Sheriff’s Department says it’s probably closer to 70 veterans,” Mullin said.