The following is a conversation that took place with a homeless veteran we met at a stand down event last year. His true account goes to show just how long the road back to normal can be for too many veterans.
“The government needs to do more to help homeless vets. I should know. I was one of them.”
This is how Brian begins our conversation. He breaks mid-sentence as if the sting of that period in his life is just too raw to recount. The wounds of that time haven’t completely healed. So, we talk about the days of old… Brian shares this wide grin with me as if suddenly we’re back in time and the good times are about to roll. I share in the smile, anticipating a good story and a belly laugh with an old friend.
It’s 1979 and Brian takes me to the neighborhood corner of 5th & L, where his “cut buddies” would hang out and wait for him to clock out at the corner store. We stand on the corner for what seems like hours before we lazily stroll past the sweet aroma of freshly baked bread that fills the narrow hall of the tiny duplex he shares with his mother and four siblings. It’s dinner time. On the menu for the night were a slice of sweet bread and a cup of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. “At 19, I was still hungry after eating that food,” he recounts. “That’s something little babies eat. Not a grown man like me.”
With no money in his pocket, no food in his belly and no future in his sights, Brian leaves the dinner table and never looks back.
He continues the story with feelings of shame, doubt, hopelessness, and fear. He said he couldn’t bear to watch his mother try to feed him, his four sisters and brothers, and herself off of a meager domestic’s salary. He thought that if he could just get in the Army that it would be one less mouth to feed and one less worry to have for his mother. “I was a man and I had to do what I had to do.” Little did he know, he would be one of his mother’s greatest worries.
Brian was in the US Army from 1979 to 1993. He saw the world. Vietnam, Grenada, Germany, and two tours of the Persian Gulf to name a few. But after the second tour in the Persian Gulf something happened. Brian continues his story in short sound bites and staccatos.
“Night sweats. Shaking. Screaming in my sleep. What the hell is wrong with me?” he stammers. It’s as if the mention of those words alone caused him to relive the nightmare. I give him a bottled water. We sat on the bench with a peculiar silence that was actually comforting. I didn’t want to hear what was about to come and I wasn’t sure if he wanted to tell it. A minute rolls by and then another before I say, “but look at you now.” That vote of confidence, the bravado of those words must have resonated with him.
See, Brian experienced a roller coaster ride to a living hell shortly after his return from the Persian Gulf. Those night sweats and screams were symptoms of PTSD, something he knew nothing about. He coped by drinking himself to sleep and then used drugs with the alcohol just to make it through the day. He became homeless and ate out of trash bins. He was a beggar on the streets. He even suffered a bout of acute hypothermia one year during the freezing cold of a winter night. Living with PTSD was more than a nightmare. As Brian tells it, “it was hell.” But he knew that he couldn’t live that way. It just wasn’t the life for him.
Brian eventually got himself together and, thanks to a VA program, he was able to detox and get clean, and enter a transitional housing program for veterans with PTSD. He’s been clean for one year and is determined to live his dream. His goal may be simple to some, but for him it’s a resolve that he’s determined to see to completion. His goal is to be a case worker to help other veterans who may be suffering like he did. His future is bright, his road is clear and he’s ready for the biggest journey yet – the road to recovery. We ended our time together on a good note.
Brian said, “Yes…. look at me now.”