They fought for their country, then waged personal battles with substance abuse and depression. Yesterday, dozens of homeless former military personnel living in the District gathered at Central Union Mission for lunch, appreciation and encouragement.
Many of these veterans have endured hard times since returning home, but their rousing after-lunch renditions of “This is My Country” and “God Bless America” with a final emphasis on the words “my home, sweet home” suggested their patriotism is undimmed.
Some saw parallels between the war on terrorism and guerrilla combat that characterized the war in Vietnam.
“You’re fighting something you can’t see it’s strange,” said Johnny Brake, 48, a former Air Force enlisted man and native of Rocky Mount, N.C.
Some of the veterans, including Mr. Brake, just missed serving in Vietnam. Many weren’t that lucky.
Ronald Smith, 58, worked as a butcher before the draft took him in 1966 to two tours of duty in Vietnam. Shot three times in two separate incidents, the former paratrooper suffered so much damage to his leg that doctors said he’d never walk again.
It took more than a year for him to manage to walk with a cane. But because it’s hard to cut meat with a cane in one hand, he never went back to working as a butcher.
Still, Mr. Smith said his biggest problem wasn’t the physical wounds he brought home, but a mind that returned him nightly, in dreams, to the fear and horrors of war in Vietnam.
He said drank a lot of alcohol to cope with memories he couldn’t escape. Today, he is living in shelters, instead of with his wife of 25 years.
“She couldn’t understand what I was going through,” Mr. Smith said.
Anti-anxiety medication helped him stop drinking. But when Mr. Smith’s prescription failed to arrive in the mail, having been delayed by anthrax threats, he said, supervisors at a Park Road shelter where he’d been spending nights refused to let him stay.
That brought him to Central Union Mission, which helped him get medicine and hosted him at yesterday’s lunch of fried chicken, new potatoes, mixed vegetables and dessert. Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ mother, Virginia, herself a veteran’s wife, was there to honor the veterans.
Donzell Moorehead, 54, was serving cheesecake and cherry pie to other veterans yesterday after having recently celebrated his third year free of drugs and alcohol. After “hitting several bottoms” over 25 years of drug use that included heroin and cocaine, the Vietnam veteran said he hit a turning point in 1993.
“The information I was given finally stuck,” said Mr. Moorehead, who is working toward certification as an addiction counselor and urges others not to give up on addicts who relapse.
Central Union Mission staffer Alonzo Alexander agreed. He’s now gym manager at Camp Bennett in Olney, where the mission runs summer programs for at-risk youth.
Before that, the Army veteran and former nightclub bouncer drifted from job to job and into using and dealing drugs. After five years of living on the streets and begging, he said he saw and heeded the message on the mission’s sign: “Come Unto Me.”
“I was thirsty, tired and whipped,” said Mr. Alexander, who believes it’s important to tell people “where [he] came from” and where he’s gotten with the help from the mission and his faith.
“I’ve got my own office,” he said. “It’s a long way from sitting at the bus stop with 10 bags of clothes and two bottles of water.”