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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 10:25 pm | Overcast 49º


Ken Williams: All Veterans Should Be Welcomed Home

Hatred and angry words from the community only inflict deeper pain on those already suffering

Since December 2009, at least four veterans who found the streets their home in our community have died. This story belongs to them and others.

Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson.
Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

Freedom — his street name was well known to many of our city. His infectious smile, lame jokes and caring ways moved many, as did his big, soulful eyes. The small man, all but swallowed up in his rickety wheelchair and oversized Army field jacket, had a heart the size of Texas. It’s hard to imagine how he felt — the terror and the pain as he sat in his wheelchair where the paramedics found him, cold and wet, deep into hypothermia. Freedom was a Vietnam War veteran.

James was also a Vietnam vet. He lived in his vehicle in Isla Vista. In the middle of the January rainstorms when the skies were painted gray and leaking tears, he finally found peace. Someone told me that when they found his body, he was stretched out like he was reaching for something, maybe that need to feel that the country — his country — finally welcomed him home.

Because he was homeless, far too many people refused to accept him as a neighbor, as a member of our community. To them, he was simply a transient, regardless of how long he had lived here or how many months he had served in Vietnam. Perhaps there’s a magic number — let’s say five months in country, in combat that qualifies a veteran as a member of a community. So maybe we can start asking homeless veterans if they pass that marker. Of course, what do we say to the combat vet who was medevaced shy of the five months because he was wounded or sick. Does he not qualify as someone other than a transient? Do we then make it four months? Three?

I didn’t know that Jerry was a veteran until Debbie from Sarah House told me that Veterans Affairs wouldn’t help with the burial of this man because he didn’t have his DD-214 discharge papers. The fact that he was receiving veterans’ benefits apparently wasn’t enough. Rules are rules and must be followed. If not, think what the consequences might be? Maybe the next time they give us a war, no one shows up.

I remember the morning I found Jerry. It was early. He had spent the night on the streets, and he was in obvious pain. When you have cancer eating away at multiple organs, painless nights come hard. Imagine what that pain must be like when you’re alone, cold and homeless.

I’m assuming Jerry was a Vietnam vet. He was my age, and few men who served in the military in that time escaped that experience. But like I said, we never had time to share life experiences. That morning I found him, I called Debbie at Sarah House. I told her Jerry had that look and gut-wrenching feeling about him. As always, she jumped through her hoops and got him a bed so he had to spend only a few nights at Casa Esperanza.

A couple of weeks later, I ran into Debbie at the hospital. She told me Jerry had lasted less than two weeks with them. But at least he didn’t die alone, unsheltered, like the other three did. He died with people who loved him, for who he was — not a transient, a homeless person who didn’t belong, but a veteran, a dying man, a member of our community, a neighbor.

Shopping Cart Ray was the latest Vietnam vet to die. He laid his head down to rest at Pershing Park never to wake. Perhaps now, the war nightmares can cease their relentless chase of this man’s mind. I recognized the anger in his eyes, in the demeanor he carried. It reflected my own that was my constant companion for so many years. Even now, given the right circumstances, the rage flows easily — so easily that it scares and scars.

Vietnam haunts. Vietnam is like a horror movie that crawls inside your skin and refuses to let go. Maybe it’s more like a cancer that eats away at your heart and soul until you want to tear it out with clenched hands.

“Coming home.” More precious words I doubt exist. It’s time that all homeless veterans be made to feel part of whatever community they happen to find themselves in. And, maybe by extension, in this time of severe economic pain and dislocation, all people without homes can be made to feel a part of the community they live in.

Millions of Americans are without jobs. Many have lost their homes, and many face the ravages of homelessness. Guilt, shame and prejudice need not compound their lack of jobs and the loss of self-esteem that goes along with that. Just maybe we’ve had enough with the hatred and angry words directed at the poor. Maybe we all should be welcomed home.

Another Thought

There were others who died on the streets who claimed to have been veterans. I learned a long time ago that most who claim combat status in that war are less than truthful. I include only those who I feel pretty sure were. This is a bitter and hurtful legacy that I don’t understand.

During the war, nobody wanted to be in Vietnam — well, some of us, did volunteer. When I came home, I, like most combat vets, hid my status — shame, hurt, feelings of abandonment, fear and pain. There were more reasons to crawl within oneself and curl up into a defensive shell than I could count. Now, it seems everyone was there usually in special ops — apparently us grunts were mere ornaments, simple afterthoughts. This includes governors and senatorial candidates, the rich and the powerful. The confusion, the unrealness of it all never ceases.

The fog of war continues to grow, to inflict more pain than I thought possible. You cling ever more desperate to the memories vowing that you won’t let the powers that be take the truth and bend it to their own needs.

To those homeless vets who died and I have not counted you among us, I am sorry.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.

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