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Honoring veterans with a special transitional community

July 01, 2010

The Fourth of July is a time for celebrating our nation’s freedom, which is largely due to the dedication and sacrifice of our veterans. Right now, the head of ASU’s Master of Real Estate Development (MRED) program and several new graduates of the program are working to help create a special community where veterans can come together in a supportive environment and transition from military to civilian life. The community would specifically meet the needs of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries from America’s most recent conflicts.

“The Veterans Wellness Network project would provide safe, contemporary, environmentally sustainable housing for veterans and their families in an area with good access to public transportation and veterans services,” said Mark Stapp, executive director of the MRED program and a faculty member at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business. “My son spent five and a half years in the Army, assigned to a special operations unit in Afghanistan, so this is very personal for me. We need to help today’s vets begin the next chapter in their lives by providing practical support services with a community-oriented approach.”

An estimated 300,000 returning soldiers – 10 to 20 percent – suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries. While there are various individual and group treatments available to them, there are few comprehensive support programs within civilian society. The new veterans wellness project creates a model for a transitional community where veterans and their families can live and act as a support system for each other, as well as utilize shared resources, including health and wellness amenities.

The new community concept started with Stapp’s son, Kyle, and another returning veteran from his unit, David Phillips. They understood what was needed from their own experiences and expressed those ideas to Mark Stapp, who then decided the location should be close to the downtown Phoenix urban core and the light rail system, keeping transportation and infrastructure costs low. This would give veterans easy access to veterans agencies, grocery stores, banks, higher education, employment opportunities, and parks and recreation areas located in the downtown area. It’s a model Mark Stapp and others would like to eventually translate for use in other communities, and San Diego has already shown some interest.

“In the MRED program, we immerse students and mid-career professionals in an accelerated 30-week program to learn about real estate development, using a transdisciplinary teaching team from the schools of design, law, construction and business,” Stapp said. “In this veterans wellness project, we’re using all of these disciplines to create a prototype community that can really make a difference in society. That’s one very important goal of real estate development education at MRED, to create innovative, new communities while serving the needs of the people in a socially, environmentally responsible way.”

The Stapps and their colleagues hope the structure of the new community, tentatively named “Milestone” by undergraduate planning students who studied this last year, will provide the kind of unit cohesion that returning soldiers experienced while serving. Ideally, they will share a sense of belonging, learn how to manage stress together, and transition back into civilian society. The community is oriented toward helping the vets become more productive, decreasing their suffering and allowing them to feel honored, not isolated.

Organizers have been discussing the project with the Valley of the Sun YMCA, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Arizona Department of Veterans Services and U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell. A group of 2010 MRED graduates – Lindsay Erickson, Nic Smith, Jeff Hanks and Craig Mahoney, who also is a veteran of the Iraq War – are among those dedicated to making the community a reality.

Mark Stapp and others are talking with a variety of public and private, nonprofit partners about funding to build the project. Then, the G. I. Bill that went into effect last year could help many veterans cover the costs of actually living in the innovative, new community.