by DANIEL WALTERS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & veryone loves veterans -- particularly politicians -- and a ribbon cutting last week to announce the opening of a transitional home for five homeless vets brought out all the local dignitaries. A representative from Patty Murray's office showed up, as did veteran and City Council President Joe Shogan and the mayors of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake.
Five beds for five vets. It may not seem like much, especially when you consider there are some 1,200 chronically homeless veterans in Spokane, according to the city's Veterans Administration.
But Dale Bries, director of off-site housing for Volunteers of America, says it's larger than it sounds. The transitional house will give veterans a savings account, a set of rules and a caseworker to help them navigate through rocky shoals of paperwork and bureaucracy.
The opening comes at a crucial time. Spokane lost a large share of low-income housing when the Otis and the New Madison closed. At the same time, a steady stream of Vietnam veterans -- too old to remain living in the woods -- has begun to trickle down to the city, Bries and others say.
To understand the challenges veterans face after war, The Inlander spent some time -- not with the bigwigs, but with veterans themselves, listening to their stories. Two of them, fighting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, have found stable homes. A third, however, is not so lucky.
Glen Douglas, veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, returned from Vietnam to anything but ticker tape.
"Coming back from 'Nam, I was spit on from a woman from Sea-Tac [Airport]," Douglas says. "I was ready to strike her in the Adam's apple or under the nose. ... I could have killed her."
For a moment, Douglas -- amidst the noise of jeering protesters and the stress -- thought he was back on the battlefield. He struck a combat-ready pose, but then acknowledged her constitutional right to say whatever she wanted. The same right Douglas had been fighting for. "She never realized how close she came to dying," he says.
Douglas struggled with PTSD, with the persistence of his darkest memories. Sometimes he'd remember his first kill, made at 17 years old. He'd remember the bullet whizzing over his head, his commanding officer ordering him to return fire and shooting the enemy right between the eyes.
He'd remember the grisly images from liberating the Dachau death camp. From that point on, Douglas says, he couldn't watch sporting events with referees in striped shirts. They were too close to the uniforms he saw at the death camp, too likely to inspire another flashback.
"Any time I closed my eyes, images would come out. I was in a battle. Tracers, bombs exploding, kids screaming," Douglas says. "I had a flashback of either World War II, or Korea or Vietnam, or a mixture of all three."
Even today, images of 9/11, with the World Trade Center towers collapsing into plumes of smoke, can trigger flashbacks. At times, Douglas would forget where he was, where he was going, what he was doing. He'd keep 3-by-5 cards on him to remind him of his destination.
At first, Douglas medicated his stress with liquor. And soon after returning from Vietnam, he became homeless. "It was like being on a mission in the Army," Douglas says. "Only this time I didn't know where I was going or what I was going to do when I got there."
Douglas says he found help from other homeless. Experienced hobos taught him the signals they used to mark houses friendly to wandering travelers. Not all were to be trusted, however. Douglas traveled with a partner -- a fellow vet -- to remain safe.
"People out there'll kill you for your clothes, for your boots, for whatever you had," Douglas says. "That's why there were two of us. We took turns sleeping. One of us slept while the other stayed awake, stayed alert."
Douglas says his homelessness ended after his daughter found him and convinced him to reunite with her mother. The responsibility of living with his wife again inspired him to find a job.
"I recall my childhood a lot when I was home with my family, how happy I was. I never realized how happy I was. And I wanted that back. I needed it and I wanted it," Douglas says. "I got tired of being sick, and tired of being sick and tired."
Today, Douglas lives with his wife and considers himself a historian, an expert on Native American culture. While his PTSD hasn't been cured -- it can never be cured -- he's able to manage it through a variety of techniques, including using a traditional Native American sweat lodge.
Vietnam taught Mike Zorn to be afraid of the dark. Night was when the enemy came out. The sunset in Vietnam brought no rest, no peace -- only bullets and bombs, as absolute boredom whiplashed into stark terror.
"You'd go to bed and everything around you'd start blowing up," Zorn says. When Zorn returned home, the night still held terror. He never went to sleep in the dark. When he'd hear a loud noise, he'd throw his wife out of bed. Even when he closed his eyes during the day, his slumber was strangled by nightmare. In one recurring dream, Satan would sit on his chest, trying to kill him, as Zorn helplessly tried to escape.
For years, Zorn didn't know what catalyzed the nightmares. Then, one day, he remembered something he'd repressed, tucked away in the recesses of his subconscious. It was an incident the Criminal Investigation Department had ordered Zorn not to speak about.
"One morning a sergeant, a quiet black man, came up to me with a rifle and asked me how to take it off full automatic to semi-automatic," Zorn says. "Then he walked away behind a retaining wall, put his gun to his mouth and blew his brains out.
"He was going to be a school teacher in the Carolinas."
Nine years ago, Zorn says, he couldn't discuss that suicide without bawling.
Zorn's PTSD, stemming from the horrors of Vietnam -- like watching civilians being beaten and raped -- sent shockwaves through his job, his marriage and his family. "You'd find yourself sitting in the car and crying for two hours," Zorn says.
The pressures of PTSD led to two divorces, long periods without work, and eventually, after an arm injury, homelessness. He couldn't pay child support and he couldn't pay rent. To find shelter, he began sleeping in people's basements, sometimes with two of his children in tow. When times got especially rough, Zorn turned to the Salvation Army for help.
Zorn lived on $680 a month. "You really learn the advantage of money at $680 a month," Zorn says.
Today, Zorn heads up the local chapter of Point Man Ministries, a Christian organization focused on ministering to vets. Zorn says learning to surrender is key to getting -- and accepting -- help as a homeless veteran.
"You have to get to the bottom of the barrel before you're willing to accept surrender," Zorn says. "Surrender is not something you're taught in the military."
In 1967, Charles Ballew had two cousins who had been in Vietnam. One came back physically wounded, the other mentally wounded. Wanting to avoid their fates, Ballew joined the Navy, planning to spend the worst of the war at sea.
Still, even while sequestered in the lower levels of an aircraft carrier, far away from war-ravaged jungles, war was hell, Ballew says. The aircraft carrier itself was a maelstrom of skirmishes -- some with whites pitted against blacks and others with men above deck versus those working below.
"I carried a 10-inch wrench in my back pocket, and a nine-inch shank," Ballew says. "We'd throw guys overboard."
Today, four decades later, Ballew is homeless. In the past year and three months, Ballew has gone from sleeping in friends' houses -- friends, he says, who took his money and then kicked him out -- to sleeping every night at Truth Ministries, a men's shelter for the homeless on East Sprague.
A native Californian, Ballew's homelessness began after he moved to Washington. Despite his training as an electrician, Ballew couldn't find a job. Part of the problem, he says, was his prison record: He spent 10 years in prison for manslaughter after accidentally shooting his wife. Ballew also blames Washington state residents' prejudice against Californians, and losing his driver's license after a DUI.
Growing up in an alcoholic family, Ballew began drinking at 12. "I'm a person that I think I need alcohol," he says, the scent of beer hanging from his breath. Ballew says he's trying to quit for his girlfriend -- he's down to only three beers a day -- but faces challenges. The VA hospital won't take him in for another round of rehab, he says, because he's more interested in having a place to stay than in receiving treatment for his drinking.
As it stands, staying sober is a constant struggle. "I'm out on the streets in the middle of the winter," Ballew says. "And I'm supposed to survive without drinking a beer?"
Ballew compared his situation to getting out of drug rehab, being sent to a drug house, given a bag of dope and warned not to smoke it. "All we're asking is to give us vets who ain't mental, give us the benefits [like shelter] that the mental ward gets," Ballew says.
Even while homeless, Ballew strives to keep up the kind of routine he saw in the military and in prison. He shows up at Truth Ministries every night at 8 pm. He works out at the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He attends classes in the morning in Hillyard, part of a four-year project to get his GED. In the afternoon, he goes down to the library or park to work on his homework.
Ballew says while he hasn't been homeless elsewhere -- and while being homeless feels like having his heart ripped out and stomped on -- he's been pleased with the way the people of Spokane have treated him. Still, he has a few words for the city and its people about homeless vets like himself.
"We're not lost," Ballew says. "Don't discard us. We're still here. And we're still asking for your help."[email protected]