By Nathan Rogers
I am what most would consider a kind person — reasonable and compassionate. Some might even say I am caring. I have the privilege of getting to go to work and serve vets every day whether it be a simple conversation over the phone, a face to face meeting in my office, or the rare honor of being trusted in their home. I hate to say it that even in my capacity I have been prone to allowing stigma and stereotypes at times steer my thought process and opinions. These thoughts were especially prevalent when considering the homeless community.
You have all seen them. They are out there with their signs. Some read “will work for food,” ”hungry need help,” “can you spare a few dollars…car broke down.” I used to be that guy thinking to myself that they must have done something bad to end up in their current situation. Perhaps they had a drug addiction. Maybe they had a drinking problem? Perhaps they were the “weak, lame, and lazy” just not wanting to get a job. For some reason, karma was dealing them this hand. You need only hear their story and really listen to change your heart and your mind.
It wasn’t any particular manner of special day in January, perhaps a little warmer than usual but not anything you would expect to change your life. I was heading to Lincoln City to meet with a good friend and his group of vets and talk about the company I work for and the program we provide. I was excited and irritated at the same time because traffic was difficult and I was being inconvenienced by slow moving vehicles. As I moved through Lincoln City, I caught a brief glimpse of a shopping cart flying both an Army and an American Flag…I instantly knew that had to be a veteran. As per my usual I veered over to investigate and see if he/she was okay. As I pulled up there was a veteran sleeping in a sleeping bag on a tarp in just the perfect dry spot with a bit of sun. I departed with the intent to return with some food and quietly leave it by him. Little did I know this was going to be a chance encounter that would completely change my paradigm of thought and bolster my passion for what I do.
I had gotten a meager meal for him, a bag of McDonald’s cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches. As I pulled back around the building he was up and had all of his gear already stored in his ruck sack and placed neatly in his cart. I rolled down my window and offered him the bag of food, and not only did he take it but insisted I sit and stay for a bit. I parked my car and after a firm handshake, he introduced himself as Jeffrey. His hair was neatly combed, he was physically fit, and surprisingly well-spoken. He thanked me for the food and insisted I “break meal with him as a brother”.
We began to talk and he told me he had been an infantry officer in the Gulf War and had the rank of Captain. He had gone to an Ivy League school for Political and Military Science and had a Master’s degree. He told me how he used to be in senior management at a lumber distributor. He told me he missed his wife and children…he wondered what they looked like now and if they still thought of him. His infectious laughter and smile dwindled into a stoic and contemplative face. A long silence passed. He mused about old buddies and his “better” military days…he wished he could go back to something that made sense.
Jeffrey became quiet and his eyes welled up. He said “I have not always been like this you know, but life has a way of humbling you and bringing you back to Earth”…”The divorce came out of left field; I thought we were happy”. He told me how he started dreaming about a close friend he had lost in the military and it had drove him to drink. “Losing a friend is sad,” he said “Losing a brother…that will change your life.” He blamed himself for not “being there.” Jeffrey had not only lost a close friend to PTSD related suicide but also discovered the body of his friend…he never got over it. The trauma drove his drinking, his bad dreams, and created a gradual rift in his marriage. He said at first he fought with his wife of 19 years, then he didn’t care, then he ceased to exist to his family altogether as he crawled into the bottle and escaped into depression and defeatism. The last thing he told me was “I signed the papers and gave them everything…they were better off without me.” Now he lives on the street so he can be left alone and so he can leave others alone.
“Well I gotta be going,” Jeffrey said as he hurriedly departed. I was curious about this pressing engagement causing the need of a hasty evac but in the interest of intuition I left him to his business. No sooner had he come into my life than he departed. It was the strangest thing. He simply gathered his things, shook my hand, and left. There I sat, my perception of the homeless completely shattered. Here was someone that had it all, a family, an education, and a lucrative job — torn asunder by his PTSD and bad memories. It wasn’t Karma, he wasn’t evil, he wasn’t weak, lame, or lazy … life just happened. He wasn’t asking for a handout or a hand up, nor did he demand my respect or approval. To this day, I can see his face and hear his story ring out in my head. Perhaps you have had the idea that a homeless shelter will drive down your property value or “they” might inconvenience you. Maybe you have quietly thought “not in my backyard”. Just remember they are people, and just like you they have a story. Take a minute to listen, it could change your mind maybe even your heart. Until then may you stay blessed and Semper Fidelis.