By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — It really does take one to know one! Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph announced Feb. 3 that Eric Verzola, retired U.S. Army Major, has joined the agency as Director of Veterans’ Services. His 20 years service in the army enables him to understand veterans — where they’ve been and where they are now. “Our view of the world is from the same foxhole,” he said.
With completion of Phase I of St. Michael’s Veterans Campus, a campus of homes and wrap-around, comprehensive services for homeless veterans near the Veterans Hospital in Kansas City, anticipated at the end of June, Verzola expects to be very busy.
Busy — that’s something else he knows first hand. Born and raised in Festus, Mo., about 30 miles south of St. Louis, Verzola’s boyhood heroes were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and John Pershing. A close cousin’s admittance into West Point, the U.S. Military Academy, inspired him to seek admission also. Cadet Verzola graduated from West Point in 1992, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Management Studies, and received his commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army.
After graduation he served as a Department of Physical Education instructor at West Point, teaching fitness and health to more than 2,000 cadets. He also served as a combatives-CQC (close quarters combat)/boxing instructor. The physical fitness, health and combat boxing programs were geared toward increasing cadets’ confidence and motivation as they prepared for active duty. Verzola earned his M.S. in Kinesiology, the study of the anatomy and physiology of body movement, esp. in relation to physical education or therapy from Indiana University, Bloomington.
Verzola also attended the Defense Information School, a U.S. Department of Defense school in Fort Meade, Maryland, completing the Public Affairs Officers course.
Later, serving as a battery commander at Fort Sill, Okla., he oversaw the training and welfare of personnel and their families. While at Fort Sill, Verzola also worked to implement an innovative support program for military families.
Thirteen years after receiving his first commission, the public relations officer and Subject Matter Expert was deployed overseas. For the next 14 months, he was sent to bases where U.S. Army personnel were stationed, to coach and mentor senior leaders. In 2007, he was serving as spokesman for the Multi-National Division Baghdad and emailed statements about insurgents, fighting, casualties and other concerns of the Iraq War.
Eric and Patty Verzola were married shortly after his graduation and commissioning in 1992. Their kids, three girls and three boys now age 5 to 18, grew up as “Army brats,” he said with a smile.
As a husband and father, he understands the fear and worry of military families when a spouse, parent or sibling serves in a combat zone. Patty and the children remained in their house in Anchorage, Alaska during his deployment.
Verzola also recognizes the pain a family feels when a loved one falls in battle and is buried overseas. He and his staff documented and videotaped the memorial services held for soldiers killed in Iraq and made sure their families received them. Military family members are the real heroes, he said.
“I wasn’t in actual combat,” he said. “I wasn’t a Rambo, firing my gun all the time. But from time to time sirens would sound in the middle of the night, and we had to grab our guns and race to the bunker for safety. The sound of cocking my gun while running in the dark is a sound I’ll never forget.”
Major Verzola retired from the U.S. Army in 2012, after serving 20 years. The family felt pulled back to the Midwest, especially Missouri and Kansas. They settled in Lansing, Kan., and Verzola took a job in communications for Payless Shoesource in Topeka.
He had a hard time adjusting to civilian work after army life. “It wasn’t long before I found out it just wasn’t the right fit,” Verzola recalled.
He, Patty and the kids had joined a parish in Leavenworth, Kan. Verzola became acquainted with Bob Roper, the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan human resources director. He connected with the Catholic Business Network and met people from the diocese and Catholic Charities at a meeting last August. After learning about the position of Director of Veterans Affairs from the Catholic Charities website he decided that “it only made sense to pursue it.”
His hiring was announced early in February 2014. Verzola hit the ground running and hasn’t slowed down yet. With the first phase of St. Michael’s Center roughly 120 days from completion, he’s asking questions at the building site, answering reporters’ questions, making contacts and connections, all with veterans in need of homes, counseling and, above all, dignity, in mind.
Walking through the first phase building’s apartments, commons areas, and laundry facilities — some recognizable as kitchens with granite countertops and cabinets, living or bedrooms, and baths, some just past the rough-in stage — he pointed out features and explained some the purpose of the design.
“St. Michael’s will serve homeless and at risk veterans,” he said. The Campus will be a physical location where veterans can transition to the realities of civilian life, with permanent housing and services.
“We want them to feel that this is their home, a place where they belong!” Verzola said. “Through counseling, employment, financial education, and other services provided by Catholic Charities, they’ll be taught life skills. Our eventual goal is to get them into their own homes, become sustainable members of society.” Living in close proximity to other veterans, “they will be able to share stories and the experiences of shared backgrounds. There is definitely something to peer to peer, veteran to veteran counseling and interaction. It really does help. Watching the building of St. Michael’s and being a part of it, is what attracted me to this job.”
When completed, the three story Phase I will have 58 one-bedroom apartments. The apartments are well lit, with large windows in living and bedrooms, high ceilings, granite countertops and wood cabinetry in kitchens, wall-to-wall carpeting, and tiled showers in the bathrooms. One unit per wing will be dedicated to the handicapped, with bath and kitchen equipment wheelchair accessible. On the second floor a gymnasium and fitness center is being constructed, and adjoining the gym will be a wifi enabled classroom. There will be laundry rooms on each floor to enhance the community feeling. Verzola and the Catholic Charities services coordinator will have offices in the building. Leasing is slated to begin this spring.
Phase II, construction of 59 one and two bedroom apartment homes with ancillary management and community space should begin later in 2014. A campus welcome and support services center, designed to provide activity areas for support services, community activities and administrative functions, is also slated to begin construction later this year.
Phase III, another 50 – 60 apartment homes, should begin construction in 2015.
“With the cutbacks and downsizing of the military to what it was before World War II, a lot of young veterans will be coming out,” Verzola said. “We’ll see a lot of them. They were battle ready, but the real world deployment will be challenging. I know where they’re coming from, and that’s what makes St. Michael’s Veterans Campus so exciting and motivating for me. The effects, the tentacles of military service and deployments are long reaching and unforgettable. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, we’ll be working with and helping veterans from all of them.”
It’s funny, he said. “Growing up, we all have ideas and plans for our future. In my case, God saw my plans and laughed. It’s interesting how things worked out. Serving the Church and serving veterans through Catholic Charities is God’s plan and it’s a job I’m embracing. I look forward to the tomorrows.”