SACO, Maine — Jason Longo bought $350 worth of cocaine, about 3½ grams. He got nearly 3 grams of it into his bloodstream.
“I shot it into my arm,” he recalled. “It did the trick.”
Once a husband, proud father of two, executive chef at the Mohegan Sun Resort in Connecticut who rubbed elbows with celebrities like Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck, Longo lay unresponsive in a field in Chelsea, Mass.
Finally, Longo thought, he would be done with it all. The haunting nightmares, the lost relationships, the regular visits to veterans hospitals. Rescuers who found him there in the dark, early morning hours about two years ago couldn’t revive him.
He swears he remembers hearing the words he secretly longed to hear for so long.
“I heard them say, ‘We lost him,’” Longo said. “I heard them pack up their supplies.”
The 40-year-old Army veteran who served in Iraq nearly two decades ago sat in a small, neat room in the Arthur B. Huot Veteran Housing facility in Saco on a recent morning, very much alive. The facility, named after a late Saco veteran who vocally advocated for the project in its developmental stages, will be celebrating its first year of operation on Nov. 10.
Longo had been in and out of veterans hospitals for almost 15 years, and after a whirlwind series of events that saw him defy death and end up at Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta more than two months ago, he was at a crossroads where so many times before he took the wrong turn.
“I was going to be discharged [from Togus] and going to go back to living out of my van, which was depressing,” Longo said.
Instead, after some prodding, he accepted an offer to stay at the Huot home. Past departures from hospitals had become steps in a cycle, returning him to a destructive lifestyle, which would return him to another medical facility soon enough. This time, he entered into the Huot home’s two-year program of meeting with counselors, setting goals, doing chores and supporting fellow veterans with similar experiences.
“I do feel like this place here probably saved my life,” Longo said. “I know the games my mind plays on me. Here, even when I have a nightmare in the middle of the night, there’s a door I can knock on where there’s somebody I can talk to.”
“More service men and women have been killed by alcohol, drugs and suicide than have been killed by the enemy,” Glenn Michaels, spokesman for Volunteers of America Northern New England, which established and runs the Huot home, said. “There are a lot of things these guys carry around with them every day.
“People need to hear these stories,” he continued. “People need to understand, because I don’t think we do. We hear about veterans and homeless veterans, but we don’t understand what goes into that.”
Michaels said much of the Huot home’s day-to-day operational funding — adding up to about $160,000 per year — is provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, while donations and grants are sought for clothes, food, furniture and recreational equipment.
The cost to establish the center was about $1.5 million, with $1.2 million coming from the VA, MaineHousing and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the remaining $300,000 coming in the form of a last-moment loan from Saco & Biddeford Savings Institute that Michaels said saved the project when it appeared organizers had come up short.
Mike Merrill, who manages the Huot facility and a sister veterans career center operated by Volunteers of America in nearby Biddeford, said the VOA facilities make up two of the three such operations for homeless veterans in Maine.
According to the most recent numbers reported by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, which tracks statistics according to the nation’s 21 Veterans Integrated Service Networks, there are nearly 3,000 homeless veterans in the New England regional service network. The region with the fewest homeless veterans is VISN 2, which consists essentially of upstate New York and has 1,815 homeless vets, while the region with the greatest number is VISN 22, with 13,847 homeless vets in the southern parts of California and Nevada.
Merrill said Huot has been a first-come, first-served home for most of its 11-month existence, and he’s working to develop a waiting list. The Huot home stands out, said Merrill, a former Marine and current National Guardsman, because of the sense of community built by tenants and guidance provided to help them reach incremental goals. The home has a capacity of 10 tenants and has served 12 homeless veterans thus far.
Among the several common areas available to tenants is a new fitness room, slated to be furnished over the next month with workout equipment paid for with a $20,000 grant from the Major League Baseball Players Association.
“People have a misconception that if you’ve served in the military, you’re 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” Merrill said. “But they hurt just like the rest of us. The only difference is, they’ve got a chain of command and federal channels they have to go through in order to get help.”
Joe Hilbert, 33, ended up at Huot not long after it opened. He was in the Navy serving aboard the USS Cole when it was attacked by suicide bombers on Oct. 12, 2000, while harbored in the Yemeni port of Aden.
But after he left the Navy and worked on a couple of contract jobs at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, he found himself out of regular work. He and his wife and son were evicted from their home and the couple eventually divorced.
He said he relives the USS Cole disaster every day. He remembers rushing through the passages of the ship, in which a 40-foot-by-40-foot hole was blown through the engine room and galley among other sections, to search for survivors and put out fires. It was the deadliest attack on a U.S. Navy vessel in nearly 15 years, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39 others.
Yet, Hilbert said many people he meets today don’t know about it.
“It’s very emotional for me,” he said. “It kind of hits you because you kind of feel like you’re forgotten.”
Merrill, who said the Huot home is always in need of volunteers and donations, said many homeless veterans feel haunted and forgotten.
“These men and women have seen people they consider to be family die right next to them or die in their arms,” Merrill said. “You don’t get over that. It never goes away from you.”
Life after death
After rescuers found Longo in that Chelsea, Mass., field, overdosed on cocaine, he was rushed to the hospital. There, his heart was restarted and, despite being deprived of oxygen for an extended period, he recovered his memories and thoughts over the following weeks.
While he had been given a second chance, the memories that came drifting back were the memories he had been trying to escape in the first place.
Like many veterans who have seen combat duty, he could not force out the details of those memories.
“We took in so many prisoners in that first 48 hours [of the war], and the way we treated them was pretty horrific,” he started, then stopped, his eyes welling up. “I can’t start thinking about it. If I start thinking about it, I’ll think about it day and night, and I’ll think about what I did to make those thoughts go away. Drugs and alcohol, which I refuse to do. Because if I start, I won’t stop until I die.”
Then there were the memories haunting him from long before the war. He recalled having been molested as a child “for years” by a male babysitter.
The ghosts of those past events swirled in his brain, and he spent more than half of the first 15 years after the war as a patient in Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country. During the time he was out of the hospitals, he was battling the memories back with drugs and booze.
Three months ago, he left his Rhode Island home in his van. The rest, like much of the previous decade and a half, was a blur. Longo said he doesn’t remember the drive, which took hours, but he ended up in Skowhegan. He had never been to Maine before, but lived out of his van there, drinking as much as a gallon and a half of vodka each day.
“It was the only thing that helped me sleep,” Longo said, “It helped keep away the nightmares.”
A woman who realized Longo was an Army veteran directed him to Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta, where he stayed for nearly six weeks and took classes on substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, which doctors had long ago diagnosed him as suffering from.
He was able to move from Togus to one of the 10 studio apartments that make up the Huot home, where he has continued his treatment and reclaimed dreams that don’t torture him. He has re-established relationships with his daughter and son, who he walked out on during his years battling depression, and delights in cooking meals for his fellow tenants.
“I had dreams of opening my own restaurant, and I wasn’t that far away from that,” he recalled. “I walked away from that. Now, I just want to get to a point where I don’t make those poor decisions any more. I have hope now. I may never be that executive chef surrounded by glamour at a casino, but I want to be content with my life.”