Off Topic – A Veteran’s Story

I go far off topic to share an important story, beautifully told by a lighting designer from San Francisco.  A veteran, she recently posted something on her twitter feed indicating that another vet acquaintance of hers, let’s call him K, needed some assistance.  Because I have a friend with a big heart and open mind who works in the benefits department of the VA, I connected them to see if he could be of some assistance to K.  Stories like K’s are probably all too common but not commonly known.  What follows is my lighting designer friend’s letter to my VA staffer friend, verbatim except for names.  Please read about the everyday struggles – and everyday generosity – of our vets.

Here’s the deal: I met K on Tuesday night in a subway station, where it seemed he was going to bed down for the night.  His “please help” sign had his VA card clipped to it, so I stopped to see what I could do for him (where I live, one has to pick and choose the homeless one can afford to care about, sadly).  He was crying.  He was in the midst of some kind of panic attack, and so I sat down to try and help.  He told me he wanted to die.

After his two tours in Iraq, he finished college, and because he was able to do so the VA is apparently denying his PTSD status.  However, he’s pretty plainly not okay.  Anxiety, panic, and depression are things I can recognize the symptoms of, and I spent hours with him.  I’m certain he has PTSD, whether the government likes to admit it or not.  Apparently there are additional benefits if one served in direct combat, but he was Air Force, a forward air controller–so he spent plenty of time getting shot at, but apparently that’s not good enough.  He had a job here at one point, but was let go when he went home to visit his ailing mother, and has been unable to get another.  The VA and Swords to Plowshares haven’t managed to give him a steady place to live; the homeless shelters have beds only occasionally and are drug-ridden messes for the most part.  He doesn’t want to live in a place that has hypodermic needles on the floors.  He has no friends and no family remaining, save for his mother who’s in a government home in Arkansas.

Fortunately, I knew who to call right then.  My friend is a veteran and on San Francisco’s veterans council, and she immediately began making phone calls.  We were able to find K a couch to sleep on last night at another local vet’s place.  Today, we found him a job: a friend who owns a restaurant hired him to bus tables.  It doesn’t do justice to his college degree but it’s a start, and he’s happy.  Once he had something to eat and the prospect of a place to sleep, he was able to tell me that he wants to live, but not like this.  He feels abandoned and hopeless, and “not anything a man should be”.

He has no substance abuse problems (insisted on showing me his clean arms; doesn’t smell of alcohol) and is obviously intelligent, and badly wants a job.  He pays for a gym membership so he’ll have a place to shower–at the expense, I suspect, of eating: he is terribly thin–and he keeps clean-shaven and his hair cut.  His bag with clothes in it was stolen recently, and when I found him he had nothing but the clothes on his back, and a small sack with his wallet, cellphone, and a folder of paperwork.  He’s ashamed of what’s become of him but has nothing from which to start, and it appears the system has just plain failed him.

I am lucky and don’t have to rely on the VA for anything currently (the Louisiana offices botched my GI bill impressively, back in the day) so I don’t really know my way around all this.  I know he has a VA case manager and takes advantage of that.  He’s been actively trying to get a job–in fact yesterday, he might have had enough money to get a place to sleep, but he spent the money to take a certificate class to get his guard card.  (He passed.)

So: he has a place to sleep for a couple of days and on Friday he’ll start a job.  I’ve managed to come up with clothes he can wear to work, and between my friend on the council and myself we’ve come up with a heck of a lot of kind people, mostly veterans, who will help him get going.

I’m not sure what I’m asking of you, except maybe whether you know how this happens (why would you? the government is a big place), and if there’s anything we might not know about that would help him.

Thank you!

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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