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Parish Chamber hears from former homeless veteran

VIDALIA — For 16 years, Wilfred Gallien Jr. struggled with drug and alcohol addiction all while battling homelessness.

A veteran of two branches of the military, Gallien was stuck wanting to change his life, but lacking the tools to make the change.

Gallien found that help through a local veteran’s shelter and he shared his experiences and how he was helped Tuesday at the Concordia Parish Chamber of Commerce Luncheon.

Concordia Parish Economic and Industrial Development District Executive Coordinator Heather Malone said a group in the Miss-Lou has been working for several months to form the Miss-Lou Veteran’s Health and Resource Center.

With 25 percent of the homeless population being veterans and 1.5 million veterans at risk of being homeless, Malone said helping the Miss-Lou’s veterans is something that needs to be done.

“The closest veteran’s facility is around 100 miles from here and that is too far to ask our veterans to go to get service,” she said.

The shelter will offer numerous services for veterans who are in the program, and to show just how much good these services can offer, Gallien spoke to the chamber about how his life was turned around through his veteran’s center.

“The programs you want to start here are programs that literally saved my life,” he said.

Born in Lake Charles, La., Gallien grew up making good grades, and earned a scholarship to McNeese State University.

After a year of making all As in college, Gallien said his life started to head in the wrong direction.

“When I was 19 I decided I wanted to experiment with cocaine, and I never dreamed I would get hooked on it,” he said. “I tried it on a Friday night and when I woke up on Saturday I got my money ready and went to get some more.”

Gallien then lost his scholarship, flunked out of school, went to rehab and made an unsuccessful suicide attempt before he decided to join the National Guard, where he served faithfully for six years.

Gallien said the Guard did not do a lot of drug testing, and so he periodically relapsed back into his habit.

After his time in the National Guard, Gallien said he moved to New Orleans where he lived in a park in the Lower Ninth Ward for months.

“I used to crawl into the Dumpster at a Popeye’s close to the park and eat leftover food at the end of the day,” he said.

Gallien said he stayed in the park until a local group –Christian Community– saw him at the park and gave him a place to stay.

Gallien stayed in the program for a year and a half, and was eventually encouraged to join the armed services again

“I joined the Marines. I always did well in the military with all the structure so I went back,” he said.

After five years of serving in Japan, Gallien came back and decided he wanted to finish school and enrolled again at McNeese, but without any involvement in alcohol or drug treatment programs he found himself homeless again on the streets of Lake Charles.

Gallien said he had already been to many of the treatment centers in the area before, and had a hard time getting into programs.

“That is when I heard about the veteran’s program in Pineville,” he said. “My dad dropped me off there and they immediately began to help.”

Gallien benefited from the substance abuse program, and has been sober ever since receiving treatment.

Gallien eventually went to the Bridge House in Alexandria, where he worked two jobs to pay off the $1,500 he owed to McNeese so he could get back in school.

Gallien eventually got back in school and in 2008 got his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Louisiana State University’s Alexandria campus.

Gallien later received his master’s degree in counseling at Northwestern State University and is even a few weeks away from starting on a doctoral program.

Gallien said he would have never been able to get to where he is today without the services provided to him from the veterans shelter.

“We as veterans are not asking for a hand out,” he said. “We are just asking for a hand up.”

Gallien said teaching people to cope with their problems is the best way to help them.

“Many times people turn to drugs or alcohol just so they can cope with life and their problems,” he said. “We need to help people cope so they know they don’t need anything outside of themselves to feel good.”

Malone said the initial plan for the project is to get grants to build a 20-bed facility for transitional housing for veterans on land donated to the cause by Riverland Medical Center.

“Riverland has told us they have a couple of acres they are willing to donate for us to build the shelter on,” she said.

Malone said once the veterans are housed, the plan is to offer them services to help get them back on their feet.

Credit counseling, health services, job training and placement and alcohol and drug treatment are all services the shelter will offer, Malone said.

Malone said the Miss-Lou is working hard on the program and is already on the right track.

“We are not having to create hardly any programs to do this,” she said. “We are just going to be utilizing existing programs we have to get them started.”

Malone asked for the community’s support for the shelter, and said if anyone is interested, there are five different areas in which they can help.

Employment and skills, supportive services, outreach, fundraising and community planning and housing are the different areas where support is needed, Malone said.

“We just want to stand behind our vets because they have stood behind us,” she said.

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