John Keaveney knows that life after war is hell, too.
A U.K. native, he left the U.S. Army after two tours of duty in Vietnam addicted to drugs and spent 11 years either homeless or incarcerated before he got help from a Dept. of Veterans Affairs program called New Directions.
When that program was eliminated, Keaveney co-founded an org with the same name to help an estimated 27,000 homeless vets in Los Angeles County get back on their feet, a goal that British Academy of Film & Television Arts/LA will support with a portion of the proceeds from this year’s Britannia Awards.
New Directions serves about 800 veterans a year with substance abuse rehabilitation, remedial education, vocational assessment and training, legal services, housing assistance and after-care that offers help beyond the program, Keaveney says. New Directions also helps homeless veterans with mental illness.
“The VA doesn’t do what we do,” says Keaveney, who serves as chief operating officer of New Directions. “The VA got out of the rehabilitation business 15 years ago.”
That’s worrisome for Keaveney. L.A. County has the largest population of homeless veterans in the country and with veterans starting to come back from the war in Iraq, that population likely will grow. “We’re beginning to see the Iraqi veterans come back and there’s no money in the pipeline for them,” he says. “We’ve got Iraqi veterans with us right now.”
Running all this takes money, and the org has a staff of about 60 and an annual budget of $6 million that is funded from 43 sources, ranging from federal and local government assistance to an annual fund-raising golf tournament, Keaveney says.
The org works hard to raise its money and to make it go further. “I think we do a better job (than the government would) because just to do the substance abuse part alone, the government would charge the taxpayers $1,100 a day; we do it for $26,” he says.
Keaveney says the org came to the attention of BAFTA/LA through Britannia Awards honoree Tom Hanks, who along with his partner Gary Goetzman had donated money to the group for years. Hanks has supported veterans causes since his work in projects such as “Saving Private Ryan” and HBO’s “Band of Brothers.”
BAFTA/LA exec director Donald Haber says the org’s board decided New Directions’ work was valuable and deserving of a spotlight. “For (Keaveney) to say that the war in Iraq is creating potentially and probably more problems than the Vietnam War did for returning veterans frightened the heck out of me,” says Haber. “For some reason, I thought that all this was being taken care of.”
As impressive as the group’s record is Keaveney’s own story and how New Directions came to be. Born in Belfast and raised in Glasgow, Keaveney became a merchant seaman who settled in Los Angeles in 1968 through the sponsorship of an uncle. He found his job in a machine shop dull and volunteered for the Army as an infantryman on St. Patrick’s Day 1969 and was sent to Vietnam.
Keaveney was wounded on his first tour and returned for a second. When he left the military, he was addicted to several drugs. He alternated between homelessness and incarceration until, facing a nine-year prison term, was offered rehabilitation in 1983 and entered the VA rehab program New Directions.
After completing the program, Keaveney traveled through Latin and South America and ended up in Calcutta, India, working with Mother Teresa and helping to start a drug and alcohol program there. He returned to the United States in 1988 and worked for the VA.
When he found that the New Directions program that had helped him was closing, he and two other graduates formed a group with the same name and started with a four-bedroom house in Mar Vista. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) helped the program get a $500,000 grant that allowed it to lease a building at the West L.A. VA medical center and open a 165-bed long-term rehab center. It has since added a second location with 46 beds and two houses for female veterans.