Thursday, May 31, 2012

Interviews With Homeless Veterans Revisited

Last March, I started doing interviews with homeless veterans at a recovery/transitional house in our community. I never got to do as many as I wanted, but I did manage to publish a couple of them at I really wanted to retrieve those interviews and re-publish them, but the archives over there haven't been working properly for some time. Well, the archives are fixed and yesterday I dove in for a bit of nostalgia.

Today I am going to re-publish the first interview I did with the gentlemen from the Loyola House minus some fluff. When I first wrote the thing, I felt this strange need to describe the house, it's architecture, what the residents were having for dinner. Reading that opening again yesterday was almost embarrassing. I guess I wanted to convey to readers that the house was very much a home to these men, but the reality is that Will, my interviewee did it better with more meaning. Doric columns need not apply.

So, without further ado and minus some unnecessary adjectives, here is the interview:

My First Evening With The Homeless Vets and An Interview With Will

I met Jeffrey Smith in January. He came in to my place of business to buy some pots and pans and, like I always do, I asked where they were going to be used. He told me the merchandise was headed to a transitional house in Pembroke for homeless veterans.

Homeless Veterans.

I told Jeff that I wanted to help. I’ll mop the floors, I’ll do the dishes, what do you need?

Jeff: ‘Well, they do all of that themselves.’

Of course they do. I should have known better.

Me: ‘Well then, maybe there’s something else I can do. I’d like to let people know that there are millions of homeless veterans in need of help. Can I maybe come up to the house and talk to the guys? If it’s alright with them, I can publish some of their stories.’

Jeff: ‘Sure, come on up.’

So I went. The result is the first in what I hope is a long line of stories about and interviews with the men who come to the Loyola House in Pembroke.
Will showed the room where he lives full time. As soon as he opened the door I experienced a bit of deja vu. It was just like every dormitory I ever lived in when I was in the Air Force, a bed, a couple couches, a T.V. Small but cozy. Orderly, but well lived in.
As Will led me around the house, kitchen, quarters for fifteen men, three bathrooms, dining room, living room, he also filled me in on some of his experiences in the Navy and with Loyola as a recovering addict. I found myself hoping that Will would let me speak with him and he didn’t disappoint. After the tour, we settled in to the small office and talked for a little over an hour. Here is the result.

The interview with Will:

Can you tell me about Loyola’s program? What are some of the expectations of the residents here? What steps does Loyala take to help them meet expectations?
Will: Well, our main objective is to get them housing…this is a house for homeless veterans and we’re not going to send them out to be homeless again. Our main objective is to work with their case managers. We’re in daily contact with them and sometimes they come out here. We work with [the case managers] get a game plan, basically.
Are these case managers from the VA?
Will: Yes. We have case managers in Buffalo, Bath, Canindagua and Albany. We work with them. Each resident that comes here is assigned a case manager as a point of contact with us. We have one guy who got an apartment already. The VA will pay the securitydeposit, through the homeless division, to get them set up. They’ll help them get some furniture, you know, small things to help get them on their feet.
So that’s the main objective here, to end their homelessness and help them continue in their treatment plans as far as any medical issues, mental health issues or drug addiction issues.
When a guy leaves, they go into some type of continuing treatment, can you give me some examples of what that might mean?
Will: Well, once they leave here we want them to have their own place, that’s our main objective. From there, they’ll continue through the VA hospital to deal with their medical issues, their mental issues or their drug addictions. That’s maintained by the VA Hospital.
Does Loyola help with employment?
Will: We buy the newspapers. Residents have access to three computers that they can use to look for employment. In fact, two of the residents here work. They go to work, they come back here, have their dinner… They have their HUD vouchers so they’re actively looking for apartments. So, working on the outside? We encourage it.
Tell me a little bit about how you came to be here.
Will: Well, I’m 48 years old. I was born and raised in the South Bronx. I was in the US Navy and in 1983, Beirut, Lebanon…I was there during the bombings. When I got out I was working Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in New York City. I was involved in rescue operations on September 11th, 2001.
That incident there brought on my…I’m diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) I started having flashes when I was in September 11th. It was basically the same scenario of what happened in Beirut, it just brought on…old memories.
I got involved in drugs and everything. My dad died September 11th, of all days, 2005. From there, I was off to the races; I didn’t care about nothin’. I became a full time drug addict, using crack. My life turned around on May 26th of 2009. I saw a reflection of myself; I was down to 130 pounds.
So I went to the Bronx VA Hospital. I spent about thirty days there in detox and psych evaluation. Then I was transferred to Bath VA and I did a six-month rehabilitation program there. From there, I was transferred to Albany where I went to a VA transitional house and started working Compensated Workers Therapy (CWT). I was fortunate at that time that Loyola was making a detox unit in the VA Hospital, so I applied for housekeeper and I got the job.
From there, I worked housekeeping, but they also had me speak with the patients there about my recovery. It is possible, it’s not the end of the world. We understand people have relapses and stuff like that, and you just have to get back on your feet and try it again, you know. Don’t quit because it’s a bad demon…drugs, let me tell you…thank God I’m going on 21 months now. I haven’t had relapses. My family’s back in my life, my children, my grandchildren, my brothers and sisters, they all gave me the best support I could ever ask for.
So, back to Loyola. In November I was asked if I wanted this job here. I mean, it placed me further away from my children and my grandkids; I was used to seeing them every weekend, but now it’s like every six months, so it’s kinda hard…it’s very hard, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it. I got promoted to residential manager here. I live here full time. I interact with the residents here; they’re like my brothers.
So, as a recovering addict, is it hard to spend time with other recovering addicts, to talk about those experiences?
Will: No. It makes it easier. It’s therapeutic. I mean, hearing their stories…I have cried with some of the vets hearing their stories. They hear my story…I get strength from it and I’m pretty sure they do also. They talk freely about it, we don’t try to intrude in their personal lives, but we also let them know we’re here to let them speak. Sometimes when they speak they open up when they hear my story and…most of the guys who work here were military. I’m a combat veteran, my supervisor, Jeff, hes retired Army. Our big supervisor, Mr. Frank Ryan, he was a Navy S.E.A.L. in Vietnam. So, me? I’ve been through what they’re going through I know exactly what they’re going through, I went through it. It gives me so much joy and I’m proud to be working with them, to help them. Just like the VA and Loyola helped me get my life together.
Loyola took a chance on me when they hired me. I had less than a year’s sobriety and I was on probation.. They took a chance on me because usually they don’t hire unless you have full time sobriety. They took a chance, mostly [it was] Jeff and the Vice-President of Human Resources. They’re glad they did and I’m glad they did also.
How do you think things would have turned out for you if you hadn’t gotten this job or any job for that matter?
Will: Well, if i would have had NO job after CWT…I don’t want to dwell on things I don’t have to, but if I wasn’t hired by this company and given the support and love of a family…Loyola’s like a family to me…I think I would have relapsed. My chances of relapse would have been higher, but in Albany, the counselors, when I was feeling jittery or whatever; they were always receptive. They were always there, not only for the patients we had there at the VA detox, but also with their employees. From headquarters all the way down, if I needed to speak to anybody, they were always there. I’m telling you, this company is just like a family..not ‘like’…it is a family.
All of this here, this is veterans only. That’s something that only veterans know. So it’s like…it’s a unit, we all work with each other. It’s a fantastic place to be.
I’m a vet myself and one of the reasons this place is so important to me is that I consider myself lucky. When I got out, I had options. I had a place to go and a good job waiting for me etc.. so when I hear about homeless veterans, it makes me a little sick to my stomach. The Vietnam guys, the Desert Storm guys, the Iraq/Afghanistan guys…it makes me fucking sick…
We have a huge problem in the United States. Jeff goes in there, he looks at all the different states and stuff like that on the computer and homelessness among veterans is to damn high, It’s unacceptable. These guys fought, they wore this uniform for the security of our country. I love my country, I’m glad I love my country, but sometimes I feel like they let us down. There’s no reason why a veteran should be homeless.
Will and I engaged in a side conversation about the military’s treatment of returning combat veterans and the stigma of mental issues in the active duty military. That conversation turned into a discussion about about mental health issues in general and although he gave the VA glowing reviews throughout our interview, he did have this to say about the VA’s difficulty in quickly diagnosing and treating discharged veteran’s with PTSD:
Will: The VA hospitals… I mean…you go there and you ask for an appointment and you go, ‘This happened to me.’ Well, they changed psychiatrists on me so, I make an appointment. She spoke to me briefly just to get a handle on my record from the previous psychiatrist.She says, ‘Oh, we need to make an immediate appointment for this young man. Make him an appointment as soon as possible.’
You know what ‘soon as possible’ was? Four months later. Four months later to see my psychiatrist. Now, if I was suicidal or whatever? Then what? That’s the problem with the VA. They’ll give you an appointment, but…I mean, the VA is great, but they’re overwhelmed. They’ve got a lot of veterans and now a lot that are coming in with mental issues because the war in Afghanistan and Iraq…it’s crazy. It’s really destroying a lot of these young guys. Most the guys that go in there, they’re 17, 18, 19, 20 years old going into a war zone.. I mean, I was a little more prepared. Born in the South Bronx, gangs and all that. Killings? I was used to it. When I went in it wasn’t too big of a deal, but you’ve got these guys coming in from the Midwest who’ve never seen anything like that being shipped off to kill people and seeing their friends get killed. How in the heck are they not gonna have problems?
We’re supposed to be tough though right? You know how it is.
We’re human. Just because we put on a uniform doesn’t mean we’re immune to what we see. They never diagnosed me with PTSD in the beginning.
Will credits a sympathetic nurse at the VA for bringing him in. After six months homeless, living in the subway in New York City, he contacted the VA. The nurse he spoke with told him, ‘Come right in, do not deviate.’ He believes his time living destitute made him stronger and gave him the ability to help others who have shared his experiences.
Basically from September 2005 to May 2009 I was hardcore, high every minute. I sold drugs, did whatever I had to do so I could get high. If I had to go through all of that again so I could end up exactly where I’m at…for some reason I’m here. I think it’s to help other veterans to make the transition, that’s why this is a transition house. It’s to make the transition from a homeless veteran that nobody cares about into a productive veteran that everybody can be proud of. I can say my family, my children, they all can be proud of me.
That’s the whole interview minus some smalltalk and a discussion about what constitutes a boat and what constitutes a ship. If you’ve ever had a serious discussion with a Navy vet, you know what I’m talking about.

The word ‘catharsis’ is is overused. So overused, in fact, that I’m convinced it’s becoming cliche. Regardless of my own prejudice toward the word, I’m tempted to use it here, not just to describe my own experience with Will and my desire to go back and do it all over again, but to describe in the most accurate way how Will came to be the man he is today. Will relives his worst days, every day in order to help other men like him and to help himself. I’m convinced that he is no saint, but he is courageous.

I haven’t met many men in my life who have the guts to grip a demon by the tail and force it to do his bidding. Will does that and I stand in awe of him.


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