HAVERHILL — John Ratka served on a submarine in the U.S. Navy and eventually became the executive director of Veterans Northeast Outreach Center.
After he died suddenly in January, the Haverhill-based agency that provides housing to homeless veterans and those at risk of being homeless began searching for his successor.
Coincidentally, they found another Navy veteran who, like Ratka, had served with our nation's submarine fleet.
Edward Mitchell of Pelham was recently appointed as the new director of Veterans Northeast Outreach Center and began his new job on Monday, June 24. Mitchell had retired from his previous job as veterans service officer for North Andover.
He replaces interim director Jason Gilbert, who had stepped into the position after the unexpected death of Ratka, a 26-year veteran of the Navy. Ratka retired from the Navy as a command master chief and continued to serve by joining the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center in 1999 as an assistant director, before being named executive director in 2001.
As chief operations officer, Gilbert said he now looks forward to concentrating his efforts towards improving the already highly successful programs and services geared towards the prevention of homelessness of veterans and their family members.
Mitchell's relationship with Ratka reaches back to 1991, when the two crossed paths in Italy.
"I was on a fast-attack sub and John was the command master chief for our squadron of subs," Mitchell said. "When we both retired in 1998, we met again when John was assistant director here and I got the job as VSO for North Andover."
As he steps in to lead VNOC and its 73 full and part-time employees, Mitchell is exited and energized about a new initiative that will help grow the organization.
"We're expanding into New Hampshire, which is in desperate need of housing services for veterans," he said. "This expansion was set in motion by John Ratka, who set a course I'm totally on board with."
Mitchell said that last year, VNOC opened an office in Salem, New Hampshire, that serves as a referral point for veterans referred to his agency,.
"Now we're looking to establish a center at 298 Hanover St. in Manchester, which is a state-owned property that is being refurbished," he said. "We have an emergency bed contract with the Manchester VA and we'll eventually look into acquiring additional properties for rehabilitation or new construction."
Mitchell had worked with Ratka in creating North Andover’s first veteran family housing unit in over 50 years. He said the property is managed by VNOC.
As Mitchell begins his new adventure, he is stepping into a large veteran housing project launched by Ratka.
Under construction at the site of the former Gerson Furniture building on Washington Street, the 44 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartment building is expected to open late next year or early 2021.
"I look forward to picking up the torch to continue building on the great work and outstanding reputation established by my late friend and fellow submariner John Ratka, and to do everything possible to meet the needs of America's brave," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he plans to reach out to local colleges in hopes of securing training, "hopefully at no cost" for his staff.
"We're also looking to hire new case managers, to add to our dedicated staff," he said.
Mitchell lives in Pelham with his wife, Diana, and has two daughters, Lauren and Colleen. Lauren graduated from Northeastern University with a master's degree in homeland security and is consulting for a cyber security company focused on providing threat intelligence to the government, military, and intelligence community. She is a first lieutenant in the Army Reserves and has deployed twice to Afghanistan. Colleen recently graduated from Rivier University with a nursing degree and is now a registered nurse at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire.