Once were warriors
Homeless vets stand down, get respite from the streets
September 24, 2001, is seared into Redeem’s memory: It’s the day he lost both his hands in an explosion at a factory making rubber products. It’s the day he says marks the beginning of his spiral into depression, alcoholism and homelessness.
The accident (and the guilt he says he feels over not being able to re-enlist following the terrorist attacks of 9/11) has “played” with his head. He served in the Army from 1986 to 1990 but resists seeing a psychiatrist at the VA Medical Center at Mather Air Force Base. He drinks instead, to “quiet the voices”—which he readily admits is the primary reason for his homelessness at the moment.
“I felt completely alone before I came here this weekend,” said the 36-year-old Redeem (who asked that his last name not be used), speaking of the camaraderie he found at the 14th annual Sacramento Stand Down held at Camp Pollock September 16-18.
A military term, “Stand Down” means to “take the soldier out of a combat zone into a safe zone.” For the last 14 years, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), along with individual Stand Down associations throughout the nation, have sponsored annual events in communities nationwide where homeless veterans are given shelter, meals and access to a variety of services in a safe, tent-city environment.
“This came just at the right time,” Redeem said. “I really was down on Friday; didn’t know what I was gonna do. My unit, the 1st Armored Division, is over in Iraq right now. I should be there. But the guys here … they tell me that I need to stop thinking about what I can’t change and focus on what I can. These guys are my psychologists. They’ve been there.”
More than 400 homeless veterans attended the event, according to official numbers released soon afterward. Stand Down volunteers cooked and served more than 4,100 meals to participants and volunteers alike.
“What we see the Stand Down do, what we want to keep doing, is to show these guys that help is out there, that it’s possible to come back,” said Kent Kjelstrom, Sacramento Stand Down Association’s media coordinator. “We’re here to give a hand up, not a handout. And you know, some of these guys come back a couple of years later and they’re homeowners. It blows my mind.”
Help may be out there, but it’s spread out, with lots of paperwork and transportation obstacles to clear, lots of hurry-up-and-wait and come-back-again—daunting for people adapted to the ways of the street and oftentimes battling their own demons. The one-stop-shopping setup at the Stand Down helps break down the barriers, with much of the initial paperwork for various programs being done on-site. Representatives from the Social Security Administration, state Department of Motor Vehicles, Sacramento Superior Court system and Employment Development Department assist vets in clearing up past court cases and fines, obtaining official documents and applying for benefits. Veterans organizations and community nonprofits help veterans wishing to enter job-training programs, drug and alcohol rehab and transitional-living programs.
Homeless veterans constitute between 1,500 and 2,000 of the Sacramento area’s homeless population, according to county estimates.
“Programs like this do work,” said 44-year-old Army veteran Jason, who asked to be identified by first name only.
Jason was connected following the 2004 Stand Down with Sacramento County’s aid-in-kind program, in which, instead of a cash grant, participants receive “three squares and a bunk” and qualify to enter the transitional-living program at Mather Community Campus, where he lives now. Enrolled in both life skills and job-training classes, Jason is working toward his certificate in technology communications.
“The programs help you reintegrate back into society,” Jason said. “If people want to see us off the street, that’s where they should put the funding.”
The state Department of Mental Health estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 of the 50,000 homeless Californians living with a mental illness are veterans. About 80 percent also have substance-abuse issues.
Former Air Force Sgt. Edward Clark knows isolation, knows darkness. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at him today, 55-year-old Clark spent 15 years on the streets battling the exhaustive symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an illness only recently diagnosed in him and treated by the VA in Menlo Park in April 2004.
“I tried to get help in 1973,” Clark explained, “but they didn’t have a name for it then. They just treated me for my headaches and my knee injury. Just gave me Darvon and Valium and told me I was antisocial and sent me home. After being treated so badly, I just disconnected from them.”
Honorably discharged after serving as a medic in an aircraft rescue unit from 1968 to 1972, Clark said he began experiencing a wealth of symptoms connected to PTSD in 1973, such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, hyper-vigilance (constantly being on guard), panic and anxiety attacks, severe migraines and smelling dead bodies (a sensory memory from his rescue missions).
But in 1989, Clark had a buddy from the Army who had similar symptoms and was treated for PTSD at a VA hospital, so Clark went back. For reasons he still can’t understand, Clark said he was turned away because “they were only seeing Army and Marines, not Air Force and Navy” for PTSD treatment at that time.
“I lost all hope after the VA told me that. All hope,” Clark said, describing a life then filled with frequent and debilitating migraines, an inability to hold a job or maintain personal relationships, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol.
“I was camping along the freeway or under an abandoned house,” he continued. “I was living in hell—no doubt.”
His descent continued for 15 years, drugs and alcohol his constant companions as he tried unsuccessfully to drown out the voices and visions that accompanied his illness and growing isolation. In April 2004, Clark said, he had an awakening.
“I knew I had to clean up.” He went to a VA hospital again, this time in Menlo Park and this time for admittance to its drug and alcohol program. After one month of stabilization, program managers referred him for assessment and treatment at the hospital’s inpatient PTSD unit, an intensive three-month program staffed by Stanford University doctors and supplemented with medication therapy.
Clean and sober since his hospitalization, Clark now lives in transitional housing and is taking real-estate courses and studying for his broker’s license. He also attends weekly support-group meetings with others who manage their PTSD symptoms.
At 6 feet and 216 pounds, Clark is a solid bear of a man, with gentle eyes and a humble manner. He seems to have made some peace with the dreams he had that will not be and is focusing more on what lies ahead.
“I can appreciate life today, on life’s terms,” Clark continued, adding that he volunteered at this year’s Stand Down both to “give back” and to show other veterans that “it is possible to come back from homelessness and get your life back.”
Life now, he said, is “doable.”