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VA San Diego's Aspire Center marks 10 years in Old Town

John Cubbage isn't unlike many of the veterans who've lived at the Veterans Affairs Aspire Center in Old Town.

He was in the Navy 16 years and left in 2012 as a chief petty officer — a rank venerated by the Navy's enlisted community as leaders and recognized by officers as the people who can make things happen on a ship.

But Cubbage began having issues. He battled substance abuse. His marriage ended.


About a year ago, he almost ended his own life. Instead, he said he sought help at his local VA in Philadelphia. That's when he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Six months and almost 3,000 miles later, an Uber dropped him off at the Aspire Center, where he now lives.

"It's very hard in this life to get a brand new fresh start, especially when a lot of us have seen rock bottom," Cubbage said at the center's 10-year anniversary ceremony Wednesday. "But that's what they do here."

The Aspire program takes post-9/11 veterans who are living with PTSD and, through intense therapy and skills training, helps them find stable housing, employment and peace of mind.

It's the only such VA facility in the nation, said Carl Rimmele, the center's director.


"I've developed and led programs for the VA for over three decades," Rimmele told a crowd of veterans and staff during the ceremony. "And I've not encountered one program that was purpose built to this extent to give you veterans a sense of home, the sense that we respect you, what you've been through. Welcome. A Safe place to work through and craft a life that's meaningful to you and your family. I think a number of factors make this unique."

In 2014 the center ran into tense opposition from the Old Town community. It would be across the street from Old Town Academy, a K-8 school. Community groups in Old Town and Mission Hills opposed bringing supposedly troubled veterans to the neighborhood.

Now, Devon Phillips, Old Town Academy's executive director and principal, says the center's been "amazing" for the school.

"Our students in our school are blessed to have the Aspire Center as our neighbor," Phillips said. "We have veterans come talk to our students about the importance of the flag and lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance. Every morning, come rain or shine, we have veterans performing crossing guard duties to help our students get to school safely."

The program itself is intense, Cubbage said.

"This is an arduous journey," he said. This is facing your demons head on. You have one-on-one therapy ... you do some pretty deep digging on yourself — on your soul. So it's not like a picnic, you know — it's some serious stuff."

Veterans are referred to the program often through the VA if they qualify, which usually means they are diagnosed with PTSD and at risk of homelessness. Some are referred via veterans courts, which favor treatment over incarceration for veterans.

Through this program, veterans can have criminal convictions expunged by the court.

Cubbage said the fresh start Aspire's given him will be in San Diego.

"I (love) it so much that after my time (at Aspire) is finished, I'm going to stay in the area and go back to school, believe it or not," he said. "And stay out here for the rest of my life."

The VA says veterans who complete the program are discharged into stable housing and have employment and educational placement rates of 100%.