It was just a few months ago that Sal Gonzales was sitting in a parking lot along 28 Road with a pistol in his mouth, nearly ready to end his life.

The U.S. Army veteran was struggling with housing issues and post-traumatic stress disorder related to his service in the Middle East in the early 1990s.

Today, however, Gonzales, 48, feels like a new person with a lot more confidence. He credits a new pilot program at the Grand Junction VA Medical Center for his turnaround.

Gonzales was one of the first to join the new Veteran School at Work program geared toward helping veterans who have received housing vouchers through the VA’s partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to learn life and practical skills related to getting a job and keeping it.

The Grand Junction VA has two veterans in the pilot program who are slated to graduate Jan. 24. After graduation, Gonzales hopes to get a full-time job with the VA and help other veterans who may be struggling.

“I was a totally different person when I started this program,” Gonzales said.

The Grand Junction VA is one of eight entities throughout the system to pilot the Veteran School at Work program. Veterans meet with an education technician for class once a week for a five-hour session over the course of three months. In class, they learn a variety of skills such as reading comprehension, math skills, writing, grammar, medical terminology and communication in the workplace.

“The idea of this program is to gain employment or go back to school,” Education Technician and Veterans School at Work Program Manager Jaime Crosby said.

Crosby lobbied hard for the Grand Junction VA to land a pilot program for this effort and hopes to help more veterans in the coming year as it grows.

Veterans who received housing vouchers to the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (VASH) partnership are eligible for the program. Roughly 200 veterans are registered with vouchers through the Grand Junction VA, Crosby said.

Gonzales received his voucher in June of 2019 and now lives within a 20-minute walk of the VA.

Crosby said she’s been amazed by the growth of both Gonzales and classmate Darrell Copeland, also an Army veteran.

“The confidence these guys have gotten is amazing,” Crosby said. “These are two guys who didn’t want to hang out or talk to anybody. Now they are good friends.”

Gonzales has worked part time with the VA through the Compensation Work Therapy program, working roughly 20 hours per week.

He hopes to use his new skills to work full time as an emergency medical technician or as a cook. Down the road, he would like to get a counseling certificate so he can help other veterans more directly.

“I’m grateful to these people and want to work here so I can give back,” he said.

Copeland plans to get more education and hopes to work at the VA as a surgical technician after picking up an associates degree.

Gonzales credited Crosby for making the program possible and said he has learned to celebrate the small accomplishments along the way.

“I’ve never written a resume in my life,” he said. “I’m almost done. I’m pretty proud of that.”

Crosby appreciated the gratefulness of both Copeland and Gonzales.

“It means a lot,” she said. “I’m just thankful I was able to bring this program here and the VA is giving us opportunities to help homeless veterans gain employment or go back to school.”

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