Recent combat veterans with post-traumatic stress issues arising from their tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq will soon find a haven to return to civilian life here in San Diego.
The "Aspire Center" will be established in Old Town, where neighbors have raised strong objections, after the City Council unanimously granted the Veterans Administration a permit to operate a 40-bed transitional housing facility in the former Thomas Jefferson School of Law building on San Diego Avenue.
Nearby residents still have concerns about the center residents’ potential for violent, disruptive behavior.
"Have you been there? Have you seen the location?” Connie Collier rhetorically asked Council members in a public hearing at City Hall. “I don't think you have. Because if you have been there and looked around and then looked at what they're asking for, you would see that it is truly not adequate enough for what they want to do."
The Council also heard testimonials in favor of the Aspire Center from the retired military community.
But the most persuasive arguments for the VA’s proposal seemed to come from stakeholders in the K-through-8 charter school across the street, Old Town Academy, which has an enrollment of 250 students.
Administrators and parents had set aside their initial opposition and managed to reach understandings with the VA, especially regarding security and on-street parking issues.
They insist they just wanted to make sure the center's residents will be good neighbors, not risks.
"(The veterans) are returning heroes and we want to give them the welcome and treatment that they need,” said the academy’s attorney, Cynthia Morgan. “So we believe, as well, we'll be able to co-exist and work jointly together to have a great facility for the veterans, and a great facility for the children."
The Aspire Center – where PTSD combat veterans will live and be counseled for anywhere from three to six months – is located just across Interstate 5 from Veterans Village of San Diego, a complex on Pacific Highway that serves hundreds of veterans.
"Once they're here, this place gets pretty mellow,” said Phil Landis, VVSD’s president and CEO, who believes that his program has a calming effect that's likely to materialize, over time, for residents at the Aspire Center.
"We don't see violence here,” Landis added. “We see people that are truly thankful. Thankful, to take a little pause in their life, and then get on with it."
Said VA Medical Center Director Jeffrey Gering: "I think this is a proud day for San Diego. It's a day that shows those who want to protect the safety of the children and those who want to serve the veterans can come together on a common interest, and shake hands across the table."
The VA plans to invest $30 million in the Aspire Center over the next five years.
Officials see it as a potential pilot project for a system-wide approach to helping troubled veterans transition to society, as well-adjusted, productive citizens.