Making the most of a 'second chance'

U.S. Army veteran Richard Devlin found a purpose at the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community in Colorado. “A second chance at life” is what he calls it.

Now, through both his work at the facility and as the commander of Fort Lyon Post 9313, Devlin is trying to help others find their own second chance.

Fort Lyon is part of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and is a recovery facility for homeless people with substance addiction and people with mental health issues. The facility, which has an emphasis on assisting veterans, provides a recovery environment of on-site and community-based education, employment and other services for its residents.

Devlin – who retired from the U.S. Army in 2010 after serving 20 years, earning a Bronze Star in the process – came to the facility a little less than two years ago. Post 9313 was chartered around the same time, and Devlin eventually became post commander.

The post now has 26 members and regularly conducts honor guard ceremonies at nearby Fort Lyon National Cemetery. Devlin said joining the post made a difference in his life – and has made a difference in his fellow Legionnaires there.

“Something happens … to an ex-soldier when you put a uniform on them,” Devlin said. “The shoulders go back. The head gets held a little higher. The self-esteem (comes back). It works. It did for me, and I see it every time (other post members) do it. It’s a self-esteem builder to the maximum, and I think it helps out with their recovery to the maximum.”

Fort Lyon Director James Ginsburg has seen the same type of effect on the residents who have joined Post 9313. “One of the things about when they’ve joined The American Legion (is) we’ve found their retention rate here is a lot higher,” he said. “What The American Legion really has done is give these guys a sense of purpose.

“The other big thing is that this is really a peer-led program. So these guys really take a leadership role and just set an example for other people. And it also normalizes the military for non-veteran residents, which has been fascinating.”

The idea for starting a post at the facility came from Legionnaire Johnny Camacho, commander of Post 6 in nearby Los Animas and District 1’s commander from 2013-2015. When Fort Lyon became a homeless and addiction facility in 2013, Camacho and other Legionnaires went to the facility to see how the department could help the residents there.

Camacho said he knew there were enough veterans to start a post and thought that if one did get started, its members could provide burial honors at Fort Lyon. “The guys there were eager,” Camacho said. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Devlin, who started in one of Fort Lyon’s dorms but now lives in his own house at the facility, has made the most of his time there. An avid bicyclist, he established a working bike shop at the facility that not only provides bicycles for the residents, but also offers a repair service for those living in the communities surrounding Fort Lyon, charging only for parts.

Devlin’s effort helped expand the bike shop from a room housing “six rusty bicycle frames” to what it is today. “I rented a U-Haul truck and I went all up and down the Arkansas Valley asking for donations,” he said. “Donations were coming in left and right.”

Those at the facility have taken advantage of the shop. “All the residents at Fort Lyon now are able to come in between 7 o’clock and 9 o’clock in the morning and get issued out a bicycle,” Devlin said. “They don’t have to bring it back until 7 o’clock in the evening. We have 560 acres there. There’s plenty of area for them to get their exercise. I was in the military for a long time, and the best form of stress relief was exercise.”

The bike shop has gotten statewide attention. During a visit by state officials, Gov. John Hickenlooper wanted to visit the bike shop and take a ride on one of the bikes, Devlin said. But now, Devlin has passed on running the bike shop at Fort Lyon to a fellow resident and veteran while he focuses on his newest endeavor: a similar bike shop in a co-op in Las Animas. Devlin – and other residents of Fort Lyon – are able to set up inside of Market on Sixth and sell their products.

“One of the really cool things about this program has been the organic development,” Ginsburg said. “Richard kind of would run stuff by us – ‘Hey, I’m going to rent a U-Haul, go up and down the valley and open up a bike shop.’ We didn’t do anything as staff. We just sort of gave him permission. He always ran it by us.

"Ultimately the question is, ‘Is this project working? What is the success?’ He’s creating this opportunity to be (independent). Now there’s 10 other people who have followed his example.”

Seeing that type of success assures Camacho that starting the post has made a difference. “It just feels very rewarding – not only Richard, but there have been other veterans that touched my heart,” he said. “It’s just been real rewarding to me. A lot of these guys … didn’t have income coming in. They didn’t have a place to sleep. You go down there, (and) they have a place to sleep. They have (a) purpose.”