VETERANS AND VAGRANTS
A Short Story
Written by Dr. Rick McGrath, Ph.D.
Have you ever asked why there seems to be so many vagrants walking around? Maybe you’ve turned a blind eye to them because everywhere you go, there they are! Every store entrance, freeway off ramp, and street corner. All carrying signs, “Will work for food or homeless and hungry! God Bless.”
Have you ever asked yourself, “What happened to them? What caused this person to become this way?” Perhaps like many folks, thoughts come to mind that tell you they probably got hooked on drugs and alcohol and lost everything. It’s their fault and they got what they deserved. While that may be true for many of the homeless vagrants that run our streets, it’s not always the case. Let me share a recent encounter with a vagrant.
Recently I stopped by our local coffee shop to have a cup of coffee and one of their famous pastries for breakfast. As I got near the door I saw a homeless man who was sitting up against the wall of the coffee shop. I don’t know what came over me but one look and I was hooked. The man sitting there was very dirty and raggedy looking. His hair uncombed and wild looking along with being unshaved. He probably hadn’t seen a shower and laundered his clothes in a very long time. Being the curious type, I had to ask what happened. So I invited him for coffee.
“Hey Mr. you want to come in and have a cup of coffee and a pastry with me?” I asked the man.
“Yea!” he exclaimed. He jumped up on his feet and entered the coffee shop with me. Of course everyone inside had one of those looks on their faces. You know the one I’m talking about! The one that yells silently, “What is a bum like you doing in here?”
As we began to sit down, the waitress came over and asked, “What’ll it be boys?” I replied,
“Bring us a couple of coffees and a couple of those pastries you’re famous for!” “Comin right up,” she responded.
“So tell me sir, what’s your name?” I asked the man sitting across from me.
“My name is John. John’s my name,” he quietly replied. “
Well John, tell me what’s going on in your life and how did you end up sitting here in front of the coffee shop,” I pried.
“Can’t hold down a job,” he said.
“John, was it because of alcohol or drugs that got you here?” I questioned.
“ Heck no! Don’t you know that stuff will kill ya?” he responded. “Look, I know I don’t look like much to you and to all these people in here. But let me tell you something! I was a hero once. Yes I was!” he sharply said to me.
“You were? Tell me about it. I really am interested in listening to your story!” I exclaimed.
“Well it was back in 1967 I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I thought I was a tough guy and wanted to go to Viet Nam and fight on the front line. I wanted to be where the action was so I joined up. After boot camp and advanced training, I got assigned to a combat unit, and they sent me to Nam.”
“Man, I thought I was on top of the world. I couldn’t wait to get there. Shortly after I landed I was assigned to one of the forward Marine units in Go Noi. The fire fights became so intense on the island it was labeled "Dodge City." We lost a lot of good men that day. Of course we killed a ton of the enemy that day. I heard one Commander say the body count was almost 1000 dead. It was the worse day in my life. I’ve never been right since.”
“So you said you were a hero once. Tell me about that,” I pressed.
“Yea, my unit was on patrol and we got separated. We got ambushed and two of my men were killed. Three others injured. Three of us carried those boys to safety and got them back to our company five clicks to the west of where we were,” he told me. When we got there they told us we were heroes and we would be getting some medals when we got stateside.”
“When I got back in 1968 we landed in San Diego. Most of us went to the hospital for physicals, check ups and mental health tests. I kept having bad nightmares and flash backs from all the death I saw. They gave me some meds, and released me. After I got out many of the VA out patient programs either didn’t help or they didn’t think my mental condition was as bad as I was telling them“ as he continued telling me his story”.
“Go on,” I encouraged him.
“As I was sayin, they didn’t think I needed meds and I was making it all up. Not true of course. I just wanted all this stuff out of my head. I tried to live a normal life. For awhile I had a girl friend and everything. I tried real hard. I got work but I would get flash backs and act sorta crazy and all. I got fired several times. Finally, my girlfriend walked out on me, lost the apartment because I couldn’t pay the rent”, he said.
“Then what happened?” I asked him.
“I drifted from place to place and ended up hear. Now I’m homeless and invisible. No one wants anything to do with guys like me. We put our life on the line for this country and our country has left us to die,” he complained.
“What are you going to do for the rest of your life? You can’t live out here forever,” I questioned.
“It’s ok, been out here for almost thirty years now. For now this is a good place. The manager puts the scraps and other things out here every night for me so I got plenty to eat. I sleep behind the dumpsters so nobody bothers me. Well I got go, they serve dinner over at the Mission every night. Don’t want to miss out you know,” he said.
As he got up to leave he looked over at me and said, “You must have served yourself? Looking at your age must have seen time in Nam. Am I right?” he asked me.
“You’re right“, I responded. “How did you know? “ I asked.
“Unless you been there, no one spends the time to listen like you just did. By the way, thanks for the coffee and roll. It meant a lot to me to tell my story, Meant more to me that you took time to listen,” the homeless hero said to me.
While we are fast to judge those who appear to be vagrants, many have similar stories. They are out there not because of anything the did wrong. No, they are out there because they did what was right. The put their lives on the line and fought for our freedom so we could have jobs, homes, families and sound minds. War is ugly. It changes who you are and the way you think. Some come back better than others but we are all affected by it. So the next time you see a person who is a vagrant, maybe, just maybe he’ll let you buy him a cup of coffee and he’ll bless you his story.
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