Helping A Homeless Veteran...
We were recently contacted by someone interested in writing an article about what we do at Backpacks For Life. The woman asked some great questions and we thought, this would be a great thing to share with our followers to continue spreading awareness and familiarizing people with the work that we do. Below is the story of a great Marine veteran we recently helped and a few reasons why the challenges that homeless veterans face are very unique...
Do you have a particular story of a senior veteran that springs to mind? or can you recall some of the unique challenges homeless veterans over 65 face? I'd love to hear more about your own experiences.
About a year ago, I had a cop call me regarding a homeless Veteran. It was around 8pm and I was about to eat dinner, but I told the cop I would be right over. The cop told the Veteran to hang ten around the police station and someone will be over to help him. He was 69 years old and had been living on the streets for several years. He found an old TD card that he would swipe at the end of the day to get access to a little vestibule where the ATMs were so that he could sleep. When it was warm out he said he would sleep by a river a couple blocks away from the ATMs. When I finally met up with the vet. I could see he hadn't taken a shower or shaved in a long time. He also looked like he could use a meal.....he looked like he was broken and torn down. We went to a beautiful 4 star restaurant...Burger King...and had something to eat. I never saw someone eat so much food in one sitting and was a little worried he might get a bellyache. I came to find out he was a Marine who served in the Vietnam war. As soon as I said Semper Fi, he opened up like a book, but in a good way. He knew he could trust me. We talked and joked for hours.
Reason #1: I truly believe that breaking bread and talking is a huge part in rehabilitating someone. Look at the movie Cast Away for example - Tom Hanks went crazy because of no human interaction and even put a face on a ball and became best friends with it. It was that need to not be alone and to need someone. This, I believe is the first step into healing those hidden wounds that Veterans face. It's that much harder for a Veteran over the age of 65+. They have been neglected for so long and it takes that many more years to heal. Back to the story…
I told the Veteran that I would help him and put him up in a hotel. It usually takes a couple days to get the ball rolling as most organization have rules, paperwork, and a couple steps to go through. I needed him to promise me he would try his best and in return I would do the same. I told him I wasn’t going to sugar coat it and tell him I can give him the world. I told him it’s going to be hard and at times scary. I told him that if he follows what I said he might be able to get that thing every Veterans strives for...PEACE OF MIND - the ability to take a breath of fresh air and not have a million things going a million miles an hour in your head. I made that promise... I will be there as a Fellow Veteran... a Brother.. a friend. It’s was getting late and I had to leave, but I made sure to set him up in a hotel until I could get him some proper housing and help. I sent a couple texts out that night... I had a mission and I wanted to get this ball rolling ASAP. I called a couple buddies who were veterans as well, that work for nonprofits and or run them. We made a solid game plan that night that we would never let the veteran be alone for the next couple days and keep him company throughout the day. We took shifts, one guy would go bring him breakfast, another for lunch, and I would go for the dinner time frame. We knew this was a solid game plan and this was the first step in healing. We wanted to show him he wasn’t alone and we would share our experiences with him as well. That following night after work, I headed right over to the hotel. To be honest I was thinking the worst, he didn't have a cell phone, but I knew from the second shift guy that he was still there. I had a million thoughts going through my mind - he was using, having a party, or just gone. When I got there and knocked on the door, someone else came to the door. I would of bet a million dollars this was a different man, but it was him. He looked at me and then he was off to the races, he kept talking and talking. I have never seen such a transformation in a 24 hour period. He told me that he took a dozen showers and when he looked in the mirror after shaving, he had to do a double take and forgot what he looked like.
The following day I started calling everyone I knew in my pool of contacts. It was a struggle to get people to help, but they did. One person was going to bring him clothing, another toiletries, and another person was going to set him up at the VA in East Orange to go through a series of health and psychological tests. Lastly... and this was the most challenging...HOUSING. The problem was he was recovering from alcohol and a lot of places needed him to be clean for at least a month or so. This was most challenging because I was going off the Veterans word that he was serious about stopping drinking and was ready to get help.
Reason #2: You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. You can only plant the seed with those kinds of people and the best thing to do is to make them aware of the help out there and that they aren’t alone. People in the military spend years getting taught to figure it out themselves, to never give up. The term asking for help has been giving a bad rap - Veterans think it is a sign of weakness - that can't be further from the truth. Asking for help and admitting your are broken is one of the hardest thing a Veteran can do, so in fact, asking for help is one of the bravest things a person can do. I think the generation of 65+ has fewer and fewer people above them in age so imagine a kid, aka me, trying to explain this to them. It takes a lot of work, but it is doable. Back to the story...
This Veteran was ready to take the next step...RECOVERY - Recovery from Alcohol and the streets was on this Veterans mind.
On the third day we had someone pick him up and bring him to the VA in East Orange. They ran a series of test & I kept to my word, showing up everyday after work to hang out with him during visiting hours. The VA wanted to hold him there for another week or two and I started to feel awful, but made sure to keep those pep talks ready everyday. He was feeling like a lab rat, getting all kinds of tests done and poked and pricked all over. When I thought it was almost over.... I was far from wrong...This was only the beginning. They brought him to 11th floor ward. One of the main reasons was because he was showing signs of Alzheimer's. He started to feel like he was just a number and not a person. He had to be stripped of all clothing and was given scrubs. He was in an enclosed section of the hospital that he couldn’t leave. This took a lot of convincing from my end and a lot of bravery from his end to go through with this, but he knew the end goal...a breath of fresh air and a clear mind. The next couple of days I knew were going to be the hardest and I knew I had to focus all of my energy on him. When I would go visit him the nurses would tell me he would be counting the seconds until I would arrive. They said he would always be joking around and was in good spirits. When I would visit, we would sing karaoke and dance around. One of the nurses asked me if she could have my number and connect me to more veterans coming through their doors. A couple of days went by and his mood started to take a turn. He stopped participating and stopped talking with people. I remember going there and we had a long hard talk. I told him this was the fourth quarter and he needed to give it his all. I told him about the promise we made.
I am not making this up when I say that next day the VA found a place for him. They set him up with his own room and some stuff to make the room look more like home. Now I know this doesn't happen often and most times things don't work out like a fairy tale, but this right here, the hope that it can be done...This is what keeps me going. I know if I did it, any Veteran can do it. If you just give them the right tools, a little motivation and just a drop of hope...That right there is the perfect formula.
It was time to say goodbye. I haven't spoke to him in a while, but I reached out to the people who took on his case from the VA. They told me he is doing great and made a little garden on the side of the house that he works on everyday.
Fast forward a couple months to earlier in December when I went to surprise him at his new place. We went out to eat and caught up, talking for hours about the good time we had in the Corps. After breakfast we went and got him a cell phone so we could have an easier time communicating. Along, with making sure he was able to get in contact with his health care providers, case workers and everyone who was helping him out. Communication is key as we make sure every Veteran we work with has the tools to get better. When I was about to leave, I asked him what he was doing for Christmas. He said he no plans and I asked him what he thought about coming to my parents house for Christmas. He said he would love to spend Christmas with us and couldn’t remember the last time he spent Christmas with a family. He is apart of Backpacks For Life’s family and any Veteran who thinks they are alone, is always welcome by Backpacks For Life. We had this veteran over for Christmas and he thanked me over and over again when I brought him back home for giving him a Christmas that he hadn’t had in a very long time.