It’s been over a year since Command Master Chief John Ratka passed away.
John was the Executive Director of Veterans Northeast Outreach Center (VNOC) in Haverhill and winner of The Valley Patriot’s Hero Veteran Award for his tireless work helping homeless veterans get off the streets.
John was appointed Executive Director in the late 90s and took VNOC from one building with 22 single rooms for veterans, to owning or managing over 200 units of housing up until his passing in January of 2019.
He created a safe, confidential, and prosperous outreach center for all veterans and their families to assist those in need of critical services, including; mental health counseling, housing assistance, job training, and assistance with VA health care/claims and even helped with simple things like guitar lessons and so much more.
John believed every veteran should be assisted and didn’t have it in his heart to say no to any veteran for any reason, no matter what the circumstances. What made John Ratka special was that he always found ways to say YES!
I started working with John years ago when I started doing homeless outreach, but became much closer with him when I started finding homeless veterans on the streets of Lawrence and North Andover about 6 years ago.
VSO NEGLECT BROUGHT ME AND JOHN TOGETHER
I had been getting complaints from veterans about the North Andover Veterans Services Officer, (VSO) Ed Mitchell never being in his office, not returning phone calls and just being unprofessional to veterans in general.
I had gone to town hall across from my office numerous times to find his office empty. I had veterans sitting in my office call and leave messages for him that went unanswered. Eventually I called John, explained that I was not looking to get Mitchell in trouble, but just wanted these veterans to get the benefits they deserved. I asked him if there was a way to go around Ed Mitchell and help these veterans on our own without stepping on toes or making a fuss with the town.
John Ratka agreed and assured me that if I gave him the names of the veterans needing assistance, one of his team members at VNOC would take care of it.
Within 2 hours, I got a call from Jason Gilbert, saying that his staff member Randy Carter would be handling any veteran issues in North Andover that came across my desk from now on.
Randy Carter called and within 4 hours. He had met with and assisted the veterans who had come to me for help. He filled out the proper paperwork to get them benefits, and took one of those veterans into VNOC as he was days away from being homeless.
In one case, I got a call from a veteran here at The Valley Patriot saying that he was homeless in North Andover, sleeping outside, and that the VSO Ed Mitchell turned him away saying he did not have a North Andover address. I called VNOC at 2 am on a Saturday night. Within minutes I got a call back from John Ratka who conferenced me in with Randy Carter. Before the end of the night, they were able to secure a hotel room, bought him some food, and on Monday morning, sent that Veteran to the VA hospital. When he was medically cleared, he went back to VNOC, Ratka and Carter placed him in temporary housing, and within 6 months secured him a job, got him an apartment, and has been living a normal life ever since.
These are just a few examples of the many veterans that I personally sent John Ratka, Randy Carter and Jason Gilbert at VNOC for assistance.
I have also seen the staff at VNOC take money out of their own pockets to assist these Veterans in need to pay electric bills, groceries, and other essentials.
John assured me that if the Valley Patriot called with a veteran in need, the team would call back within the hour and that they were available 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
That was protocol … THEN!
DISGRACING JOHN’S LEGACY
After John had passed away last January, VNOC continued to conduct business as usual at first, with Jason Gilbert as acting Director.
But, for some reason the board of directors suggested that he needed some continued development, so they placed Retired Navy Chief Edward Mitchell in charge of VNOC, the same Ed Mitchell who was the North Andover VSO. I was stunned. It was like a punch in the gut to everyone who knew the history of my relationship with John.
Mitchell’s career as North Andover Veteran Service officer was marred with excessive sick days and health issues that forced him into so-called medical retirement. Yet, now he was taking a job as head of VNOC?
As of the time of his hiring at VNOC, he was recognized as 100% service-connected permanent and total disabled veteran. That means he was not eligible to go back to work at this capacity until exams and pension was re-evaluated. But, I guess when the director’s job comes with a $100k plus salary it makes you feel pretty healthy very quickly.
Shortly thereafter, for some reason Jason Gilbert left VNOC. Jason was responsible for numerous grants and renewals that raised the bar for every other veteran nonprofit. Other than John, Jason was overseeing all VNOC programs.
After Jason left VNOC in July of 2019. Randy Carter would be moved into his position immediately.
Randy Carter came up through the ranks from case manager, to program coordinator, to projects and program manager. Randy was instrumental in getting the grant and per diem ‘transition in place’ program in Methuen off the ground that would house homeless veterans in an apartment that they would eventually take over once stabilized with supportive services.
Jason as Program Manager and Randy Program Coordinator ran the Supportive Services for Veterans and Families (SSVF) and all 3 years Randy and the SSVF team met or exceeded the goals of housing homeless veterans or prevented them from becoming homeless. They served over 1,500 veteran families. Yet, for some reason Randy Carter is no longer an employee at VNOC either! Ed Mitchell told me that he could not tell me why but that he let Randy go and would not let him return. Again, I was stunned.
Both Randy Carter and Jason Gilbert, two people Ratka personally hired and worked with every day, have refused comment publicly.
Since, these two individuals left VNOC, and under the ‘leadership’ of Ed Mitchell, the agency has not even come close to meeting their obligations and have even lost their contract with Caritas Communities to help veterans with permanent housing at the VA Campus in Bedford.
This program was integral in the mission to ending veteran homelessness due to the location on the VA Bedford Campus.
TURNING VETERANS AWAY
What’s more, I recently heard a voicemail from a veteran who lives in VNOC housing in Haverhill with a mental illness who had an episode from a break down. Instead of finding a way to assisting this hero veteran, as John Ratka would have done, Ed Mitchell banned him from VNOC for life.
This veteran lived in veteran housing at VNOC. I have to say; just on this one case alone, John Ratka is rolling over in his grave.
This vet lives on a fixed income and can’t even use the VNOC food pantry.
NON VETS GETTING VET BENEFITS
There is also housing in Lawrence that was set up for homeless veterans with VNOC grant money and other veteran funds, but now houses two civilian tenants and get this, one of them is also the housing manager for VNOC. The other is their sister who is not a veteran.
They also use another apartment VNOC owns in Haverhill that can go to a homeless veteran but is being used as an office.
I got a text from another veteran who says since Mitchell has taken over, veterans at VNOC are being neglected and forgotten about.
This vet said that the CFO of VNOC actually questioned his veteran status, one of the highest insults any veteran can receive.
Ironically, the CFO, himself is not a veteran and may not even be a citizen, but, that will be another story for a future column.
SQUANDERING JOHN’S LEGACY
One of the things that made John Ratka so special was his insistence that almost every single person who worked at VNOC be a veteran, from the guy who sweeps the floors to the people who manage the grants. Yet, what the new executive director of VNOC has done is eliminate anyone at VNOC that had any institutional knowledge, and hired civilians who have no knowledge of working with homelessness.
This is an agency that under John Ratka was 98% run by veterans. Today, in less than a year under Ed Mitchell’s ‘leadership’, it is now an agency staffed by less than 50% of veterans.
The CFO Mitchell hired to oversee the financial aspect of the agency was brought on board, supposedly, because of the lack of financial controls within the agency. At least that’s Mitchell’s story. But, I knew John Ratka. He built VNOC from the ground up, with plenty of financial controls in place.
The Valley Patriot has found out that the new CFO only has an associate degree from Southern New Hampshire, no management experience, and has hired 2 more money people with enormous salaries. Yet, they still can’t get it straight.
Some salaries have doubled if not more.
Speaking to various employees who want to remain nameless for fear of retaliation from the new ‘leadership’ say that they’ve been passed over for positions in favor of people who have little or no experience because they speak their mind about the current status of VNOC and see it continuing to spiral under Ed Mitchell.
Who is looking over this tragedy?
There is a Board of Directors, but get this, the president of this non-profit board is also a member of a for-profit board and has stated that VNOC can and should be a money maker!
I remember reading a news story a few years back about a nation-wide non-profit agency that assisted veterans who gave outrageous salaries. When it became public, they were so embarrassed that they simply disappeared. I don’t want that to happen to VNOC but it seems like they are following the same path.
MOVING ON WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The Valley Patriot has discovered that even Julian Jaramillo who was THE pillar in the housing dept. has since moved on after the arrival of Ed Mitchell.
These three veteran heroes (Carter, Gilbert and Jaramillo) were the hand-picked pillars of VNOC under John Ratka. They were destined to continue John’s legacy at VNOC after he passed. Instead, they are no longer at VNOC while Mitchell hires non veterans, houses non-veterans, and guts any memory of John Ratka.
If you ask me, as an outsider who worked intimately with John Ratka, Jason Gilbert, and Randy Carter to get homeless veterans off the streets, VNOC is now in a state of emergency!
I am hoping the right people will start to take a closer look, but my fear is that it is far too late.
We hear that Jason Gilbert is now working with an amazing agency out of Devens Massachusetts called Clear Path for Veterans New England where he continues fighting the fight to assist homeless veterans and continues to be there when a local veteran is in need.
As for Randy Carter, he is everywhere assisting homeless veterans whether he is getting paid for it or not. Randy has joined up with two veteran agencies and is assisting them by passing on the knowledge that both Jason Gilbert and John Ratka instilled in him. He is currently trying to finish his Master’s Degree.
As for Julian, from what I’ve been told, is working with the Veterans Administration, continuing to serve veterans in need.
These three men, along with other members of the VNOC team that have left the agency over the past year, will continue to do amazing things for our veterans, I am sure of it.
God bless all three of you and may John Ratka rest in peace knowing that his legacy and vision is intact and will continue to live on in Jason, Julian and Randy, just not at the agency John spent his entire life to build. ◊