Veterans Day makes me think about my friend John. He’s a Vietnam veteran who spent 14 months in Saigon working on an air base. I met John at a Community Resource Exchange at Quest field in Seattle some years back. The community resource exchange is where dozens of nonprofits band together to connect homeless people with essential hygiene items and services, like haircuts, warm clothing, housing help, resumes mammograms, etc.
I helped John find some shoes, socks, and a wool cap. He didn’t really have any place to go so we hung out for a while over a cup of coffee and he told me his story. John can be a little intimidating if you don’t know him. He is about 6’ 2” with long flowing gray hair and a scraggly black beard. He chain smokes, when he has cigarettes, and he’s an alcoholic who was drunk most of the times I saw him. He has a loud scraggly voice and a distinctively sinister kind of laugh.
John lived under an overpass on I5. He wasn’t welcome in any of the mainstream shelters because they don’t allow drinkers and smokers and he wasn’t about to give up smoking or drinking for a hot shower and a cot. John is unemployable because he can’t control his anger. He lost his temper twice at work and beat up his employers. He’s had other run-ins with managers and coworkers so he’s used up all of his second chances.
John told me where he lived and the corner where he panhandled. So, I would swing by his corner to say hi if I had time whenever I was in the area. One Veterans Day I made a special trip down to Seattle to see John and thank him for his service. I didn’t see him on his corner so I went to where he camped to see if he was taking the day off. When I finally found John, he was in rough shape. A couple of other homeless men had rolled him a couple of days before. They roughed him up pretty good and took off with most of his possessions. Knowing John, he probably started the fight and had been too drunk to finish it.
It was a cold, wet November that year and they had taken his coat and shoes so he was conspicuously shivering, almost to the point of shaking. His face had blood caked down one side and one of his eyes was swollen shut. His hair was so matted it was hard to see the huge wound on the back of his head. As he told me the story of what happened he started crying a little and had to stop and compose himself a couple of times before he finished.
I helped him back to my truck and convinced him to go to the emergency room to get patched up. I called up some friends of mine at the United Way and they provided John with some used boots and a coat, along with a brand-new sleeping bag. When we finished up at the hospital I tried to get him to go to one of the shelters but he asked me to take him back to his camp. So, I dropped him off, gave him the money I had in my wallet, and wished him good luck.
That Veterans Day was the last time I saw John. I went down to his corner several times and ventured up to his camp a couple of times but he wasn’t to be found. I asked a couple of homeless campers that lived near John and they said he might have moved to Portland. John told them he had family down there.
Anyway, kind of a long story, I guess I should get to the point. There are a lot of scammers out there trying to prey on your emotions for a buck. But there are a lot of homeless veterans out there as well. I feel terrible for people who are homeless through no fault of their own; children, teens, victims of domestic abuse, etc. I think we all do. After meeting John, I also found compassion for people who have no options for getting back into society’s mainstream, regardless of who is to blame.
A great way to honor veterans is to pull one up from the depths of despair. Please volunteer or give to shelters in your area that take in homeless veterans and will provide them with a shower, a hot meal, and a dry place to sleep.
On this Veterans Day, I’d like to thank all my fellow Veterans for serving. – Tom