What comes to mind when you think of a veteran? Do you think of a shining hero, decorated with awards and full of patriotism? Or maybe you think of a broken man, shattered by post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people only envision one type of person, when, in fact, veterans come in a diverse array of red, white and blue. Man or woman, homeless or middle-class, rich or poor, each veteran has experiences all his or her own.
Every day, Joe* sits on top of his backpack on the corner of a busy McMinnville, Ore., street. He comes and goes as he pleases, interacting with young people and coffee shop baristas. Behind his sunglasses, his crystal-blue eyes observe the world and those around him.
Many people are familiar with this man and his sign that says he is a homeless veteran. Maybe some of them wonder about his story. Like all other veterans, he has a story to tell. Joe’s is a story of pain, betrayal, confusion and years of trying to find the answers.
Joe was born on the Oregon Coast, spent the first half of his childhood in Salem, Ore., and later moved with his family to McMinnville.
“I’m an Oregon child,” he says.
In early 1970, he enlisted in the military and served for three years. He saw that American soldiers were struggling in the Vietnam War and wanted to do his part.
“At 17, I got permission, because the soldiers were getting their asses kicked, and I wanted to go help,” he says. “I was real excited. I was gonna help America win a war, by myself. I was gonna kick all their asses.”
However, he rapidly learned that first impressions and daydreams usually disappoint. Joe was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., where it rains all the time. Joe frequently found himself the butt of jokes and harassment. One day during basic training, Joe was the target of a cruel prank. A drill instructor purposely took the pin out of a grenade Joe was holding, forcing him to quickly throw it away.
Joe felt like the least important solider in the group, often taking the brunt of others’ aggression and adrenaline.
“In the military, testosterone is a very, very strong motivating tool. They like to pick on this person or that, just to make the others feel like they’re cool. I was kind of like a scapegoat,” he says. “I found myself being used in negative ways to stimulate testosterone and show the fellas that they can get away with whatever they want.”
To make matters worse, Joe and his fellow soldiers never got to go overseas. During his training, the government deactivated his infantry unit from service in Vietnam in an attempt to bring the troops home from war. But Joe was fully trained and ready to go at any hour, night or day, with a full battalion.
“They were only bringing soldiers back through the base next door. They weren’t taking any more over. So my career never got off the ground, which disappointed me, and everybody else,” he says. “We were all full of testosterone and wanted to kill something, and there was nowhere to go. So there was a lot of in-house fighting.”
Instead, he and the others spent their days cleaning trucks and transferring messages to and from other military bases. The inability to serve in combat created an atmosphere of anger and abuse. To release some of the trapped adrenaline, the soldiers simulated what battle might be like.
“We went out in the field and played army about every month, muddied up all the equipment until we were all good and sick and tired, then cleaned up the equipment and did it again,” he says.
The mistreatment Joe experienced from his commanders and fellow soldiers scared him. He kept his mouth shut out of fear.
“Basically, my experience in the military is not being hurt by the other side, but by my own side, by superiors,” he says. “And they hurt me pretty good to where I was scared to say anything. I figured they’d kill me, so I kept my mouth shut. And that’s where I’m at today, basically keeping my mouth shut.”
After being dishonorably discharged for leaving the military without permission, Joe returned to civilian life, where he was greeted as many other Vietnam veterans were greeted in America. Despite not having actually fought in combat, Joe was spit on and insulted by nearly every person he walked past.
Joe filled his time doing odd jobs. Then he met his wife. He found her in a time of need when no one would help her.
“She asked me if I could help her move to another apartment complex. So I did, and I asked her if I could keep coming over. I learned of her because of a state worker who stole her money and wouldn’t do anything to help her,” Joe says. “I said, ‘You’re a beautiful woman, why don’t you have a man in your life?’ She said, ‘They’ve all stolen from me, all of them.’ And I just wanted to do something for her other than that. We were together for 20 years, as best friends, husband and wife.”
Joe’s world fell apart after his wife passed away from a serious illness. That’s when he became homeless.
“I’m homeless, but I’m okay with that. I’ve recovered a little bit, but I was in a lot of grief for a long time,” he says. “But I’m getting much better. I’m out here with a lot of dead veterans and soldiers. They empower me every morning when I wake up. They’ve been around me, they’ve been protecting me. I’m out here on the chest plate of Mother Nature and I’m under the stars. The spirits of soldiers from hundreds of years surround me, energize me, like a battery.”
Though he has struggled, Joe knows how to find small joys in life. As he sits and reflects on the poor treatment he faced in the military, his gaze begins to waver and he gets restless. He prefers to talk to his friends and focus on things that make him happy.
“A happy memory from being a soldier … is getting out of the military. I’d probably never go back if I had the chance. If I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t go. I wouldn’t advise my children to go,” he says.
Joe still doesn’t want to talk about what happened to him during his time in the military. It has taken him many years to learn all the answers, he says, and he is still afraid. However, he has still managed to live a life he is proud of and maintain his dignity.
“My life’s been good,” he says.
Joe’s story shows how veterans’ lives can be permanently changed by war. Its effects on him were unique. Yet accompanied by the spirits and the memory of his beloved wife, Joe has discovered the strength to overcome his grief and move on as a happier man.
* Joe’s name has been changed at his request.
Writing: Kelsey Sutton
Photograph: Joel W. Ray