When Army veteran Dylan Tête returned from a nearly two-year combat tour in Iraq, he grabbed his young family and headed to New Orleans to begin his civilian life. Three months later Hurricane Katrina hit.
“It was great timing in some respects, because I knew exactly what to do,” Tête said.
The West Point graduate withdrew his application for graduate school and turned his focus to helping the city recover from the historic storm, leveraging his project-management experience in Iraq to guide the construction of FEMA trailer parks and, later, projects with the city of New Orleans.
Today the Louisiana native is focused on a different type of recovery: helping returning soldiers, particularly those with traumatic brain injuries, transition back into civilian life. He has founded Bastion, an innovative community in New Orleans for veterans and families with lifelong rehabilitative needs. Located near Bayou St. John and City Park, the residential neighborhood aims to employ a holistic approach to reintegration and recovery in which every resident gives service, including volunteers who live full time in the community.
“The model is all about facilitating active engagement that will incubate meaningful relationships that can endure for a lifetime,” Tête said. “With someone with a lifelong rehabilitative need, like a TBI, that is everything.”
The initiative will focus on post-9/11 veterans and families, as well as surviving family members. Bastion’s structure is based on a successful model that has been employed by agencies serving foster children. It invites volunteers, including older veterans, to live in the community and provide service to the residents. Services could range from meal preparation and transportation to budgeting and social support.
Bastion is also partnering with other community providers, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, to avoid any duplication of services. The overriding goal is to serve disabled veterans and families who are at the greatest risk of slipping through gaps in the existing system of care, which is often the case with hard-to-treat and increasingly common traumatic brain injuries.
Tête says he developed an interest in assisting veterans with traumatic brain injuries after seeing fellow warriors struggle with the devastating effects of the condition after returning from combat. “I had a lot of buddies who came back home pretty banged up,” Tête said. “Really it was a matter of paying attention and trying to learn what was really happening.”
Tête’s interest eventually took him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington D.C., where he met nationally-renowned neuropsychiatrist Dr. David Williamson, whom he credits with opening his eyes about traumatic brain injuries, the symptoms of which can get worse with age.
“For someone who is relatively young who has family, if the injury is severe enough, he needs lots of support,” Tête said.
After four years of planning and development, and convincing enough people the model would work, Tête broke ground on Bastion in June 2016. Phase 1, underway now, includes 38 apartments and a wellness center. All of the homes will be situated around a 5.5-acre property with a central green space. Community Coffee Company is a supporter of the project.
Even though construction continues, the first few residents have already moved in. Among them is Josh Earl, who enlisted in the Army National Guard three months before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2004 with the 220th Military Police Company, and ended his service in 2006.
Earl said Bastion isn’t about merely providing housing for returning warriors, but rather a unique and supportive community of veterans for those who are often struggling with transitioning away from military life.
“One of the hardest things about being a combat veteran specifically is that going back into the civilian world is kind of like living in a foreign country,” Earl said. “You don’t fit in anywhere. No matter how much you try, you're always kind of an outsider. Bastion is going to help these veterans come together and help them become more integrated back into society while also having that safety, that security, that camaraderie we had in the military. So that if we do ever leave here we have a much stronger base and a sense of purpose."