In the aftermath of 9/11, Aaron Grady entered the United States Army, guided not only by a strong sense of patriotism, but also by a desire to escape his own demons.

The drugs proliferated on the streets where Grady grew up, a “very tough neighborhood” in Newark, he said, where even at a young age Grady fell victim to their grip. At 18, in 2002, Grady joined the military with a dream of defending a country that had just been attacked while eradicating the specter of its drug use.

It didn’t go as planned.

Grady went through basic training, but when he moved to advanced individual training, he got injured. The injury was a torn ACL, meaning Grady’s dreams of military service were over.

“I was bummed that I didn’t stretch properly, didn’t run properly, didn’t take care of myself properly,” said Grady, now 39.

When he left the military in 2003 after being discharged on honorable terms, Grady’s life took a turn for the worse when he soon found himself drawn to drugs.

Grady studied forensics for two years between 2011 and 2013 at Central Ohio Technical College before dropping out due to drug use. And the ensuing years that Grady spent battling addiction and battling depression were marred by two marriages and two divorces, stints in rehab and jail for drug-related offenses, and time living in a tent in the woods of Newark.

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But when he was released from a July jail sentence in Licking County for drug trafficking and possession, Grady was referred to veterans services offered by Volunteers from America Ohio and Indiana. There, he became one of hundreds of Greater Columbus area veterans who receive help from the nonprofit agency for unemployment, addiction and homelessness services each year.

Grady was connected with a case manager and received financial assistance that allowed him to move into a subsidized apartment in August on the east side of Columbus. Volunteers of America helped pay his rent and security deposit, and also provided him with a bed and other basic items, said Isaac Barton, VOA program director for Columbus veterans.

“I was comfortable in the woods,” Grady said. “But having (housing) was a step in the right direction to get away from drugs and focus on what’s important in life.”

Aaron Grady is watching an episode of "Criminal minds" on his phone inside his apartment.  He was studying forensic medicine when he had to drop out of school due to drug-related issues.

Volunteers of America has offered such programs to low-income military veterans who have faced homelessness since 1992, according to its website. And it bills itself as the leading provider of human services to homeless veterans in cities like Columbus — where more than 400 veterans received VOA services in 2021 — as well as Cincinnati and Cleveland.

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The housing program, operated in conjunction with other support services, provides veterans with a range of housing options, including affordable housing and emergency shelter beds, said LaRaun Clayton, vice president. acting from veterans and housing for volunteers from American Indiana and Ohio. Some veterans can buy or improve their homes with a US Department of Veterans Affairs housing loan, while others need emergency housing or permanent supportive housing.

LaRaun Clayton, Acting Vice President of Veterans Affairs and Housing for Indiana U.S. and Ohio Volunteers

“There are a host of other needs that may not be met, so to wrap these services around the individual, we will work towards a better outcome,” said Clayton, himself a reserve veteran of the US Army who spent 15 months of his 10 year service in Iraq. “Where Volunteers of America really helps bridge that gap and provide that nexus of services is really understanding what might be available to an individual and working to connect them to those services.”

These services are funded by community donations and a portion of retail sales at VOA thrift stores across the country, said Robert Campbell Jr., senior vice president of retail operations for Volunteers of America Indiana & Ohio.

Robert Campbell Jr., senior vice president of retail operations for Volunteers of American Indiana & Ohio

Over the past 18 months, Volunteers of America has renovated many of its thrift stores, including moving the VOA Thrift store on Henderson Road to the mall’s end unit to add more shopping square footage and better access. easy to donate with a drive-through donation area. .

Volunteers of America brought in $18 million in sales in Ohio when those renovations began, but the agency reports revenue is expected to rise nearly 10% this year, with 100% of proceeds from donated items purchased from thrift stores going to fund the VOA support services which include programs for veterans. VOA executives said the goal is to grow revenue by an additional 40% over the next seven years (2022 to 2029) while nearly doubling the number of open thrift stores in the region to help reach more of people in need.

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The new Volunteers of America store on West Henderson Road pictured in February.

“It’s important to us to help our fellow human beings, and the populations we help – veterans, families – it’s our heart to help them and give them the resources and support they need,” he said. said Campbell. “A lot of people don’t know what their dollars are for, and we need to share the message.”

Having a home gave someone like Aaron Grady the stability he needed to reevaluate his life and focus on his goals. Although he’s only been in the apartment for three months, he already has his sights set on the next phase of his life: going home.

After losing his last job when he said health issues caused him to miss too much work, Grady is looking for a job in Newark.

His hope of returning to his hometown is to be near his remaining family and also his girlfriend. The couple have only been together for a month, but Grady said they’ve known each other for most of their lives, giving them a solid foundation of friendship and support.

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“You can take anything you learn and as long as you put in the effort to do what you need to do,” Grady said, “you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

Aaron Grady was studying forensics when he had to drop out of school due to drug problems and said he enjoyed watching a variety of crime scene investigation TV shows.

Eric Lagatta is a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch covering social justice issues and nonprofits.