Photo of African American male with a gap-toothed smile in black coat.

These are some of the men and women I met during the annual Winterhaven Homeless Veteran Stand Down event at the D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Jan. 25. Some of their service reflections instantly reminded me of brothers I lost to the violent undertow of ideological clashes.

I still say I “just” got out of the service when people ask, even though it was two years ago.

I wondered if some of the guys, like Mr. Fullwood, still feel as if they just separated from service.

We each have our own camaraderie. We separate together with the option to continue those sisterhoods and brotherhoods formed under duress, unretired long after the watch ends.

Despite this deep sense of commonality and relief of unspoken understanding, it also simultaneously felt unfair to think of myself as just like these other veterans. Some are homeless or under the ward of a government or institution, while I, an individual who already has Maslow’s entire hierarchy of needs met, am more concerned with table reservations on Wisconsin Ave. or tuning up my Subaru for a road trip to see “the boys.”

It also would have been unfair because I served in a later round. Despite the trauma and hardships the service will always beget, we at least have scaffolding in place that works to prevent our experiences from collapsing us to ruin. My transition from active duty service into an unfamiliar sector of employment was smoother because of varying enterprise love for veteran applicants. I was propped up by an invisible hand which lay dormant in Vietnam and Korea.

They were in for subsistence, and I, a glutton in a society more supportive of service members than any time in recent history. I’ve never walked out of a base in uniform without being greeted “Thank you for your service” by people of all races, faiths, and political sides.

There is no greater gift than time offered to another human being. When we communicate, we are made more human. When we discover in other human beings what we could never find in ourselves, we are made bigger humans. We grow from investing ourselves into the others.

I made a new sister and new brothers, whom I never served with, through each exchange. I heard stories about camaraderie no different than those I walked away with, and when warriors spoke, tears formed in eyes like mine, and I was glad I served and stayed.

 

William E. Harris, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran, has been attending Winterhaven since 2014. He mused over the years he spent working at HQMC (1976 – 1984): “You know, where that Air Force Memorial is, that naval annex? I was right there doing admin. Then Okinawa, Japan, then … relationships sour,” he said in a sobering tone. “You know, there’s mental problems. It’s the worst — some alcoholics, drugs — mix that with homeless, jobless. With resources like this [Winterhaven], some [veterans] are actually coming out of it. What would take us to the next level is if they group us up and take us on a trip, a socializing program. You see, restoring hope is more important than giving handouts and walk[ing] away.” 

Deitra Green, of Maryland, is a U.S. Army veteran. She served as an MPO (Military Police Officer) many years ago, and this year is her first year attending the Winterhaven Stand Down.  She is grateful that she heard about the event through other veterans who are faced with challenging situations and excited about people caring about Vietnam veterans. She explained, “I am from a time when Black men were forced into service and saw nothing back for it. Now that they are getting some kind of payback through programs like this, I feel lucky to be counted as part of that community.” Her favorite part of Winterhaven is the giveaways, but also coming together to see one another and laugh and joke and reminisce. 

Sam Fullwood is 62 years old and engaged. He has gap-toothed confidence that one would expect from a 26-year old championship boxer. “I’m a Marion Barry Baby. You hear me. I was first in line back then to get a job under his summer program. And guess where it was? GSA security, you hear me?!”   

When asked how he ended up a veteran, he responded, “I got bumped.” In other words, his position in GSA security was vacated in order to create space for a transitioning veteran. “But listen, that’s how it should be,” he explained. “Get everyone bumped that ain’t served, especially at a place like the VA. Make the workforce all vets, all colors. Sound crazy?” 

 He smiles broadly. “I’m 62 years old and considered fully disabled by the VA. I’m only able to receive the assistance I get today because I was young and able, and when I got bumped, I decided to go to the Army.” Sam reminisced about his days in Nuremberg and its relationship to William Darby and Hitler, which was too much unfamiliar history for me to keep up with. He wanted to be in the Army, to leave D.C., to travel.  

“I saw injury, marriage, family problems, divorce… And you know they say, ‘Mission first, family always.’” His voice trails off and his smile fades for just a spell. “Winterhaven is a baby program compared to Program California in Sacramento. That’s not one day, it’s one week: mess halls, huge tents — it’s really something that is astonishing for people who have nothing.”  

Sam feels he’s kept me for too long, but I want to hear more. I ask him what he appreciates most about Winterhaven. “It’s the same thing I appreciate about any of the vet programs; it’s about running into people I served with that makes us feel like kids. And hey, you can’t please everyone, so I would give the VA a 100 percent plus.”  

Before he lets me go, he asks me to look up “We the People”, a poem he wrote when living in a tent outside of Corcoran Art Gallery. He attributed the writing of that poem to what he ironically called “the good years of living in tent city, when people like Street Sense held you up and helped you make money selling papers, meeting people, writing stories. They didn’t give you a handout. They equipped you with a means. 

Charlie Kudla, 71, is a U.S. Army veteran. When describing his service years, he spoke in snippets of information, as if dropping hints and waiting for me to piece it all together. Pleiku. Nam. Signals, man. STRATCOM. 68 to 69. Tropo Hill. His thoughts catch a wave and he explains that the VA is pretty good help, but there’s stoppages, delays in the processing of benefits. There are delays on getting IDs and that means delays on housing and other things. I said, “What other things? What else would you like to see offered during events like Winterhaven?” And without skipping a beat, he says, “The heads of the totalitarians that run this country.” Charlie is originally from Chicago. He joined the Army from there and left once  his orders changed from Germany to Vietnam. Since then it’s been a series of sidewalks and shelters. “VA has done a lot of good things” is the rhetoric, but get down here in it, and you’ll find it hard to believe they’re saying that. “The people dealing with our injuries and our mental problems are taking the form of a pharmacy pushing drugs.” 

Bill Landeaux, of Denver, Colorado, joined the U.S. Air Force to see the world. “Instead, I saw Vandenburg, CA.” This was his first year participating in Winterhaven and he has appreciated learning about the different programs available to veterans in the community. “For example, I got legal help to do a will. Also, I live in a nursing home, and Veterans Affairs enables travels between my nursing home and the medical center, which is really great help. Of course, a few extra warm clothes and boots don’t hurt when it’s cold.” Like many of the other vets I spent time with, Bill wants to see more interaction. He says a Social Event Club meeting once a month would really make us feel like something. “We could get together and do things like go to Smithsonian or something and just interact with other vets, homeless or not.” He pauses and shakes his head before continuing. “As soon as this guy gets out, it’ll be fine. He’s an ass building fences with money that could go to better programs for us. But we don’t even matter. It could be going to better bases and other national security stuff.” 

Percy Davis was the most soft spoken of all the vets with which I had some time. He says, “I was in just 3 years, 1960-63 in Dongducheon. That’s Camp Casey, you know, a base in South Korea, but that’s back when Black folks had to crawl through walls to get their food.” “Wait,” I stopped him. “You said what?” He explained, “I said white boys sit at the tables in the restaurant, but they passed a plate to you [Black folks] through a hole in the wall.” Another nearby vet listening in chimes, “Ah yeah, some days you come home from fighting and couldn’t sit at the bar in the 51club.” His comment  drew some laughter. I had no idea what they were so amused by until Mr. Davis smirks and says, “Gentleman’s club.” Davis was born and raised in D.C., and today, 76 years old, he is happy with clothes and boots for the cold and receiving a flu shot. “Say, they are good just give money directly to the vets. Ha! Yeah right, you [know] that’s never coming.” He drifts off, maybe to South Korea, maybe to Franklin Park, where there’s a church he says provides hot meals for the people out there. \

Lee Morris was an 11B in the Army from 1969-1975. Before an early out due to post Vietnam drawdowns, he served in Germany at Robinson Barracks and in various parts of Southeast Asia. He loved Bangkok, Thailand, because of the weather. The Winterhaven event is brand new to him. “I never paid enough attention before, so it’s good. It’s my great first year attending this event. One of my fellow vets in my support group mentioned it and then another asked if I’d participate. Today, I got help with utility bills and help with a living will, exams, bloodwork in the labs. I appreciate that they have HIV stations. There’s a thing people don’t realize: a lot of these older vets these day get a blue pill and suddenly realize they can get it on again, and you know, a lot of us are from the old school where people didn’t think about STDs and AIDS and such, so, people are just not protecting. This information on HIV prevention was absolutely important.” I asked him what else he would like to see offered and he said, “More dress clothing never hurt.” Boots are great but dress shoes, khakis, and maybe collared shirts would go a long way for those wanting to get back in the job market.