A veteran’s life, lived on the streets

Posted Oct. 20, 2009, at 5:59 p.m.

I interviewed Hal last week. He let me ask anything and he answered every question, no matter how thorny. He shared some pretty heady things, but only once did he look like he might cry.

Hal grew up “on the mean streets of Detroit.” He was one of eight children. When his dad died his mom never remarried. Back in the ‘60s, Hal’s family planned a huge party for his 16th birthday. He was born Nov. 22, 1947. You can do the math and figure out that Hal’s party got canceled: That morning, the president of the United States was killed in Dallas. Hal said this upheaval, on a day that was supposed to be great, is the story of his life.

When Hal was a freshman at the University of Michigan, the handsome black man fell in love with a beautiful blonde and she loved him back. Uncle Sam ordered him to report to Fort Campbell, KY and every week the leggy blonde took the bus to see him. Unable to meet any other way, they stood and held hands through a chain link fence.

After basic training, the U.S. Army sent Hal to Fort Gordon, GA, to train for the military police. Next stop: Vietnam. Hastily, Hal and the blonde married.

Hal did two tours. Initially he patrolled the streets of Saigon keeping his fellow soldiers in line. I asked him if he busted them for drug use. He replied, “In Vietnam if we’d arrested soldiers for drugs, we’d have had no soldiers.”

His second tour was bloody. When Hal told me about the Mekong Delta his eyes welled, his face turned red and the 61-year-old man had to stare at the ceiling to keep his tears from spilling onto his face.

“We patrolled the river. There was a marker in the middle of the river. On the other side was Laos, which was allied to North Vietnam. People fled Laos seeking refuge in South Vietnam. The other side tried to stop them. Our job was to watch and if they could make it to the marker in the middle of the river then the rules of engagement applied and we could shoot to protect them.” Hal lowered his gaze from the ceiling and looked straight at me, “I watched a lot of women and children die.”

Since 1967, Hal has lost everything. He lost the pretty blonde wife and another one after her. He has lost contact with his family. They would take his calls but he won’t call them. He’s ashamed. Hal’s a recovering everything: You name it, he’s used it.

“I have a nose for crack houses. You drop me in a strange city and in an hour I can be in the middle of everything getting high.”

He used to be a computer software writer, until he realized he could use his talents to empty ATM machines and get high. According to the Bureau of Justice, 140,000 veterans were in state and federal prisons in 2004. Hal was one of them.

Today he stocks shelves in a grocery store and lives in a homeless shelter. He’s clean — but adds cautiously, “for now.”

I asked him why he thought so many veterans lived on the streets.

He told me that everything bad he’d ever done he learned about in the military. He said that he touched his lips to alcohol for the first time at the Fort Campbell NCO club. He added, “Every survival skill I have, I learned in the Army too.”

Hal explained that once a man has slept in a jungle and foraged for food, living on the streets in the U.S. is easy.

“Veterans aren’t afraid of the streets. My family members who never went to war, I can’t call them and tell them how I’m living. If they had to live the way I’ve lived they couldn’t do it. They’d only judge me.”

Veterans Affairs says there are about 200,000 homeless veterans. None of them should be ashamed. Next month, on Veterans Day, write a check to a homeless shelter. In the memo you can write, “I’m proud of our vets.”

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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