- Associated Press - Sunday, September 4, 2016

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - When Anna Judge received a Facebook message last year from a Veterans Affairs social worker, she and her sister Marta Sallie thought it was a hoax.

The message said their brother, German Leon, was in the VA’s care in Atlanta, and that they needed to speak with his family as soon as possible.

Neither had heard from their brother in 32 years. The last time they spoke with him, he said he’d retired from the Army and was heading to Atlanta in search of a job. As time went by without any word, they started to worry.

Sallie said they called hospitals and law enforcement in the Atlanta area. They even hired a private investigator to track him down, but he never turned up.

So after more than three decades of silence and frustration, the VA’s message seemed too good to be true.

“I was like, ‘This has got to be a joke,’?” Sallie said.

A red-tape tango

Leon and his younger sisters were born in Panama, and they immigrated to the United States with their mother in the mid-1970s. They settled in the Charleston area, where everybody but Leon would remain.

He joined the Army when he turned 18 and served for three years in Georgia. After that, Leon isn’t quite sure what happened. While his sisters and mother searched for him, he was struggling to keep a grip on reality - and eventually wound up on the streets in a fog of confusion that would last for decades.

“I was losing my mind,” he said.

Leon was among 20 percent of the male homeless population in the United States who are veterans, and among the 50 percent who have serious mental illnesses, according to congressional reports on the issue.

Patrice Green, a VA social worker, met Leon in April 2015 through the service’s Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program, designed to help homeless and at-risk veterans get back on their feet. She discovered Leon had been living on the streets of Atlanta for at least 10 years and was struggling with mental health issues.

“His memory was poor, and he couldn’t really document his whereabouts and where he had been,” she said.

Green started helping him put his life back together, but it wasn’t easy. Leon didn’t have any form of identification, and without it, he couldn’t get help from services that typically provide health care benefits and housing to veterans in need. Plus, he’s an immigrant, so that complicated things even further, Green said.

“We went to various agencies in the city,” she said. “Because he didn’t have his birth certificate, because he didn’t have his green card, we were just met with a lot of ‘No’s‘ and, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t do that.’?”

That’s when Green started looking for his family online. She initially thought they might at least have some of the documents he needed.

Leon remembered their names, but couldn’t say where they lived. He had asked authorities for help contacting them before “but different people would give me different answers,” he said. Green sought help from the U.S. Immigration Service and looked them up on an online locator service but they still weren’t able to track down correct contact information.

“We were stumped,” Green said. That is, until a graduate intern who worked with Green posed an idea to message possible family members via Facebook.

“Lo and behold, one day later, we get a call from Mr. Leon’s sister,” she said.

‘Starting all over again’

Once reality set in that they had found their brother, Sallie and Judge set up a conference call with Leon and the VA workers who had been helping him. Leon immediately recognized their voices “even after all these years.”

Their conversation quickly turned to talk of a reunion, but Leon was skeptical at first. After such a long absence, he said he didn’t want to be a burden to his younger sisters.

“The first thing he said was, ‘Can I stay with you, Marta?’?” Sallie said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Uh, yeah!’?”

The joy that came over them was instant, Sallie and Judge said. But they also had bad news to deliver. Their mother had died in July 2015 - just a few months before the siblings found each other.

“In his mind, he was hoping he would reunite with his mother and his sisters,” Green said. “I think we all cried. It was just very emotional.”

A month after their first conversation in November 2015, Sallie and Judge went to Atlanta to bring their brother home. They were stunned to see each other for the first time in more than 30 years.

“It was like a stranger, you know, but you also know that’s him. It was like starting all over again,” Judge said.

“We were just happy to see that he was alive,” Sallie said.

It was the moment Leon had imagined for so many years, even when it seemed impossible.

“That’s what kept me alive,” Leon said. “You know, I didn’t lose my hope. I knew I was going to see them, but it was a matter of when.”

The family never lost hope, either. They’d held onto his belongings and all his immigration documents in hopes he might one day come back.

“I had his old ID card, everything,” Judge said. “I always tried to think about the good side of it, that he’s still alive.”

Challenges remain

Today, Leon lives with Sallie and her 11 year-old son, Clinton, in North Charleston. He regularly sees doctors at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston and is treated for his mental health issues.

“It’s great” to be home, Leon said. “I feel safe.”

Still, Sallie said it is difficult to care for her son and her brother, particularly since she works nights as a professional caregiver. She and Leon also said they’d like more financial assistance from the VA to help pay for his care.

He has to take several medications at certain times every day, and it still baffles Sallie how he was able to survive alone for so long on the streets.

“He can’t ever live by himself (again),” she said.

The sisters also still have questions. They wonder if someone could have done something sooner to help him to track down his family, for instance. They also question what might have happened to him after he left the Army, specifically whether something traumatic caused his mental breakdown.

“That’s why it’s so strange to see him like that, you know. You had a brother that had all his senses, and now it’s like he’s an 11-year-old,” Sallie said.

But, when you look at the big picture, the details don’t matter so much, Judge said.

“We try not to ask what he’s been through,” she said. “It would be hard for him to explain to us, so we just go from here.”


Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com

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