How did they get this way?
It’s the question you can’t avoid asking when you see it-hundreds of them, all ages, men, women, even children. Every race. It’s hopelessness smeared across the canvas of the human experience. It’s an end to which you can’t see your way to. From where you were to where they are just doesn’t connect. So you have to ask it.
How the hell did they get this way?
For the last year, my wife has been helping them. Our kids are all in school now and it was time to start on a new journey for her. She went back to grad school and now is serving as a counselor at The Veteran’s Village of San Diego-a facility that takes in addicted homeless veterans. The task is to provide them with a chance to start over, get off the streets, get sober. So that’s what she does with her days at work. She listens to the problems of homeless, addicted veterans and tries to help them develop some emotional skills to cope. It’s not light work. And it’s not for the faint of heart.
Today we’re at Stand Down, the annual three day event where volunteers and resource providers gather in one spot and invite the homeless veterans of San Diego to come to them and seek help-anything from medical care, to clothing to haircuts to legal assistance. It’s a massive intervention. And every year, since 1988, about a thousand homeless vets come here to get what they can. After her first day, she told me I needed to come. I needed to see it. As a vet. As a father. As a man. So I did.
Now we sit outside the tent where the people she’s completed an”intake” for are finding out whether or not they can get off the streets and participate in the program at Veteran’s Village. At the table a woman checks their name. If they’ve been accepted into the program, she shakes their hand and says, “welcome home”. Tears and hugs follow. It’s the first good news any of them have heard in a long time. Years. Decades. Maybe a lifetime.
She takes me to other places. She wants me to see all of it. The children’s tent, where there’s daycare for the kids while their parents seek services. The tent is full. It tugs at your heartstrings. If you look too closely it rips them clean out of your chest. A woman drops off her listless son, four maybe five. She walks unevenly away, too quickly, yet too slowly at the same time, coherent but a little off the way someone who’s body no longer understands it’s place any more.
“She’s tweeking” my wife says. “They all are.”
We head over to where they hand out clothes and get haircuts. A man, gray beard, raggedy clothes, shows her pictures of his reenlistment-20 years ago maybe, clean cut in his dungaree uniform. I’ve seen that photo a hundred times. Hell, I could have been there. He babbles, trying to tell a story but mostly just repeats that he’s been driving cross country. And that he has daughters. And that he’s “service connected” as in service connected disabled. He wanders off to show the pictures to someone else and finds another audience in one of the volunteers. Out comes the photo book. And the story.
Over the PA system, a live testimonial of a former Air Force enlisted woman cuts loudly over the crowded murmur. Today she received two things-her chip for being sober one year. And the good news from the legal tent that they were able to overturn her dishonorable discharge and change it to honorable. She was now two albatrosses lighter-though still hopelessly behind in the race. More applause. More tears. The question comes back in the silence that follows. I have to ask my wife.
How did they get this way?
She says, matter of factly, almost surprised that I couldn’t tell. “Addiction. Almost all of them.”
We walk a little further out into the center of the field of tents, surrounded by them now. She continues, “And every single one, that I’ve talked to at least, every one, is self-medicating something. Anxiety, depression, ADD, PTSD, maybe a little of all of it.”
I think about my boys. And me. And the generations of my family of addicts. I could see them there. After we’re gone maybe. It’s too tough to think about though. So I stop.
The week before, the two of us attended a talk given by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy-son of Senator Ted Kennedy. Congressman Kennedy, who retired from office in 2011, recently authored a book chronicling his own public journey with addiction titled, A Common Struggle. In 2008 he sponsored the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA), groundbreaking legislation prohibiting less favorable treatment for benefits related to substance abuse disorders than to other disorders. In retirement, Congressmen Kennedy now serves as an advocate for mental health issues. Of particular focus on the day we saw him was the enforcement of requirements laid out by the very law he sponsored-something that has been sadly slow to catch on. The outcomes, in many ways, have directly contributed to the massive addiction epidemic that is arguably the most serious medical crisis facing America today. As I walked from tent to tent, I bathed in that reality.
There was something that he told us, in the grand ball room at the majestic Manchester Grand Hyatt that overlooked San Diego harbor, that I couldn’t shake. Now, as I stood there watching these poor souls shuffle around, over the dust and dirt of the dying grass, it started to grind slowly into my brain. The Congressmen noticed that other members of Congress who had, behind closed doors, disclosed the impact addiction had on their lives, also voted against the bill he introduced. When he asked them why, they stated that where they came from, the heartland of America, things like addiction were considered a moral issue-not a medical issue. And that supporting a bill that found its motivation grounded in something to the contrary, would open them up to risk- politically.
As I watched these men and women who served us all at one time, in their broken state, those words grew louder in my head.
Moral. Not Medical.
Then I remembered my experience transitioning out of the service. I remember returning from Iraq and having about a year before I was completely out. I remember the stress and the horrible feeling of detachment. I remember that, for the first time since I was 18, I no longer had someone to reach out to that was responsible for my well-being as a function of their job. I remember, that for the first time, I alone was responsible for my family. I remember the crippling anxiety. And I remember, for a brief time, when that inner turmoil transitioned from the “moral” to the physical by way of crippling panic attacks.
Most of the time they came at night. I would wake up shortly after I fell asleep gasping for air-my heart racing. I wasn’t having bad dreams. I wasn’t even feeling stressed. I couldn’t explain it. Then, they started coming in broad daylight. I would feel fine, and then a rush of dread, racing heart, panic, frozen in fear. Twice they happened in job interviews. I hid it well, I thought. I didn’t get those jobs though. And I always got the jobs. I was an officer from Annapolis with an MBA and a shining war-time service record. And I’m a hell of an interview. But I was falling apart.
I had options though. And time. And the support of a loving wife and family. And the fellowship of a loving church. And I needed every bit of all of it. Eventually the father of my roommate from the Naval Academy made a connection for me. And I made the most of it and turned it into a job. I got counseling and learned some methods to control the attacks. And soon they went away and never came back. That was a long time ago. But not that long.
Looking out from the gated suburban neighborhood I live in, from my over sized track house or from my corporate office at the Silicon Valley tech firm I work at, the distance between where I am now to where these people are, seems immeasurably far. But the reality you’ll realize, once you’re willing to share some of the credit with fate, or luck or others or God, is that it’s not quite as far as it seems. At least it wasn’t at one point. And the difference had absolutely nothing to do with my morals. Or my character. It had to do with the amount of support I had. And luck. I had tons of both. Anything less, and all bets are off. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have ended up there, at Stand Down, on the other side of those tables. But that’s a question I’ll never have to answer.
Because of Support. Not morals.
Here’s the deal. There’s a large strong loud American constituency that loves to fly the flag and talk a big game about supporting the troops. They’re gritty people who believe in rugged individualism and freedom and liberty. And they’re every bit a part of what makes America great. If you’re a part of that group, that’s wonderful. I am too. But I’ve got a message for you. There’s a very good chance that you support elected officials that either voted against Congressman Kennedy’s MHPAEA or oppose further action to ensure it’s enforcement. In all, about 200 members of congress did just that. You can check out who.
You’ll have to do a little work though. Maybe something more than flying a flag in front of your house. Or sharing tough guy memes on Facebook that support those who fight. Supporting the troops means supporting them when they can’t fight-when they need it most. Looking around Stand Down in San Diego, I see a whole lot of people left behind. So maybe this year, save the meme forward. Or maybe even forward this instead. And maybe this year, check out where your congressmen stands on the issue. And reach out and let him or her know that you support the troops with your vote. And your voice. Because they need it a whole hell of a lot more then we need representatives who still think that people choose to be addicted. And that the crisis of addiction gripping our country is simply, a crisis of morality.
This is a path no one would ever choose.