I didn’t know that Gary fought in Vietnam—he was very quiet and private.
He was a big man with a bushy mustache, mostly gray now.
It was a Thursday night in 2010, probably around 11:00 pm.
It was this time of year—fall—during one of the few fall nights that is beautiful in the Chicago area.
Gary was not drunk, but he had obviously had a drink or two.
It was a quiet night and I sat down next to Gary to eat a homemade oatmeal raisin cookie that church volunteers had brought.
Gary had just arrived at the shelter for the night. He was picking—without any real zeal—at a plate of reheated spaghetti with a single oversized meatball.
“I still remember the faces of the people I killed,” Gary said without looking up from his dinner.
I finished chewing the bite of cookie in my mouth and simply asked “yeah?”
“Every one of them,” was all Gary said.
I set down my cookie and let Gary continue.
“There was the North Vietnamese woman who snuck into the barracks at night and tried to kill me while I slept. And the teenage boy who tried to blow up a bunch of us with hand grenades. And others…”
Gary’s voice trailed off.
“I still see their faces. Every. Single. Night.”
Gary told me in graphic detail all the times in Vietnam that he had killed someone or almost been killed. I won’t tell you the specifics, because I didn’t sleep very well after hearing the details.
And Gary’s story continued when he got back from Vietnam.
He had lost jobs because of “anger issues”…
… and been divorced from a woman who could no longer understand him…
… but he fell in love again—with a bottle this time—though the bottle did not love him back.
And now Gary was homeless.
We sat in silence for a few minutes and then Gary drank his glass of cherry Kool-Aid from a Styrofoam cup in one gulp and headed off to bed.
I followed him up to the men’s sleeping room at the shelter and watched him put the sheets and blankets on his mat on the floor.
I had never noticed before that even decades later, Gary still made his bed with military precision.
Gary shuddered as he eased himself down onto the mat on the floor. It was obvious that Gary had brought Vietnam with him to the shelter.
I looked over the 88 men sleeping in the men’s room and wondered how many of them had brought Vietnam with them—or Kabul or Anwar Province—or places I can neither pronounce nor imagine.
In case you didn’t know…
Gary stayed in our shelter in 2010.
In the United States, the number of homeless veterans declined by 50% between 2010 and 2019.
That wasn’t an accident.
That was the result of the federal government making a concerted effort to end veteran homelessness.
We can end veteran homelessness. We can end ALL homelessness.
Have a great week!