UTICA, N.Y. -- With the Frankfort-Schuyler High School Band performing the Army Song, World War II veteran Kathleen Murphy Brooks cut the yellow ribbon at the Central New York Veteran's Outreach Center in downtown Utica Nov. 11. The opening of the center marked the beginning of a new front in a two-year-long campaign for another Utica combat veteran, New York Army National Guard Sgt. Vincent Scalise.

Scalise served as a combat infantryman in Iraq with the New York Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment. When he returned to Utica in late 2004, however, he faced a new battle helping his fellow Iraq veterans reintegrate with their families and communities.

"Every day it seemed another Soldier had fallen on hard times and needed help," Scalise recalled. Some Iraq veterans needed work. Others needed housing. But help proved hard to find in the rust-belt communities of Central New York's Oneida County, where jobs are rare commodities and the closest full-service Veterans Affairs facilities were up to an hour away in Albany or Syracuse.

Scalise noted that the core of the problem lay in "outreach" to veterans.

"Nearly 85 percent of veterans benefits go unclaimed," he said. "We need to reach out to veterans, to show them there is a place to go that is centrally located, and where there is someone to help you." With budget constraints at every level of government, Scalise found the public sector could not provide the finite level of service the veterans of Central New York needed.

A full time Soldier at the 108th Infantry, Scalise began dedicating his nights and weekends in an effort to fill a void public coffers couldn't.

"I'll never forget the day Sgt. Scalise came into my office," Utica Mayor David Roefaro said on Veteran's Day to an audience of Soldiers, citizens, veterans, firefighters and police officers. "He said, I'm going to build a center for veterans right here in Utica."

Scalise first founded a charitable organization, The Utica Center for Development, and then beat the brush for private donations. A local businessman kicked off the effort by donating the old YMCA, 87,000 square feet of dilapidated office, gym and dormitory space in the middle of the city's once-bustling main street. Scores of smaller gifts - pennies and dollar bills in some cases fueled the renovation of the first floor, making way for social services and an internet caf known as "The Bunker."

"Sergeant Scalise has dedicated his personal time and efforts to establishing a place for local veterans to turn for assistance," said Capt. Richard Redmond, another Utica native and commander of the battalion's headquarters company. "His dedication and commitment to our local veterans has not gone unnoticed, and today his hard work pays off as the Central New York Veterans Outreach Center opens for business."

After the ribbon-cutting guests crowded into The Bunker for coffee, tea, and a cacophony of bull sessions between an enthusiastic public and a platoon of combat veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea.

Several guests sought out Sgt. Scalise to congratulate him, but he seemed impatient, his mind already focused on the next phase of the operation. In the next six months, he hopes to open 16 beds for veteran transitional housing, and that, he said, "is just the start."

To make a tax-deductible donation to the Central New York Veteran's Outreach Center, send a check made out to the Utica Center for Development at 726 Washington St., Utica, NY 13502.

UCD.jpg - A graphic rendition of what the Central New York Veteran's Outreach Center will look like when it is completed. Courtesy of the Central New York Veteran's Outreach Center.

New York Army National Guard Capt. Richard Redmond and Sgt. Vincent Scalise of the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment speak with a priest on Veterans Day outside the Veteran's Center. Photo by Dana C. Silano.