Revisiting words and images from 2015.
The house seems to appear out of nowhere one day. Its late September and its beginning to feel like fall as I walk home from class. My plan for senior thesis has just fallen through. I need a new project, a story to tell, and suddenly I’m facing a sign that reads, in army green letters, “The Veterans Group - Helping others help themselves.” Behind the sign a narrow stone building and a large brick house stand side by side, a passageway connecting them in the back to form a single misshapen structure. Several men sit in silence in the yard, observing me. Their skin is weathered and their expressions are hard, but they look aimless, lonely, and I think that I want to know them, to hear their stories.
“I visited death briefly. I don’t think I have that many runs left in me.”
It’s November now. Walter is the 9th man I’ve met with in this crowded house on Baring Street, and for the first time the door is closed. The rule is that I’m never supposed to be alone with any of the men, but they’ve made an exception for Walter. He has had an especially troubled life, even for the men here, and he doesn’t want to be overheard. Walter doesn’t understand why this is such a big deal. “I’m not crazy or anything,” he tells me. “Its not like I’m going to rape you.”
Walter was only 15 when he enlisted in the army, using a forged birth certificate to escape a troubled family life. He was 15 when he began drinking, encouraged by the men around him “to get fucked up every night.” He was 15 when he woke up in a pool of his roommate’s blood and realized that the other boy had succumbed to his depression and slit his wrists. He tells me that he and his first wife were both heroin addicts, that after her suicide he came to the heart wrenching realization that the best thing to do for his children was to give up his parental rights, to give his children to his wife’s sister. After that he entered a seemingly endless period of addiction, helped along by an enabling mother, until one day he overdosed and his heart stopped and he woke up in a hospital and realized that he had reached the end of the line, that he needed to find the strength to finally turn his life around. The bruises on his chest from the CPR that gave him back his life serve as daily reminders that this is his last chance.
“I don’t think God is fighting the Devil, I think God is fighting mankind... God is supposed to be right there to protect us all, and I don’t see how God is doing his job. He’s not my protector.”
Kenneth is especially hesitant when the case manager first approaches him about the interview, wary of the girl with the recorder and the camera. He acts tough and unapproachable and his answers are brusque. He dutifully recalls his decision to enlist as a young black man living in the city in the 1970s, wanting to escape the drugs, gangs, and violence that surrounded him. He’s thankful for his time in the military, but his life hasn’t been easy since then. He bounced around from job to job, girl to girl, struggling with depression and alcohol and drugs, winding up homeless on multiple occasions. Now, he finds himself living in this house for the second time, waiting for subsidized housing, hopeful that this will be the time everything changes.
I’m surprised when he first asks me about religion. We’ve ended the interview, I’ve turned off the mic and am loading film into my Hasselblad when he asks if I believe in God. He doesn’t, can’t, not after everything he has seen. He tells me that he believes in people and their inherent goodness, that “we all want peace, deep down,” but that if there is a God, he’s not a kind one, but one that is jealous and unforgiving. I can tell that he’s been waiting to speak these words, that he’s been struggling living in a house that celebrates Christian values.
Kenneth loosens up considerably after this conversation. He shakes my hand every time he sees me now, asks me repeatedly how I’m doing, reminds me of the importance of “being pretty on the inside.” He is chatty and sociable and always smiling, and I am amazed at the contrast between this side of him and the man that I first met, the man that I see in the photographs.
“People here had no idea what we were doing over there…we were baby killers and we were this and we were that…So you took off the uniform and left them alone.”
Unlike Kenneth, Stephen has latched onto Christianity, uses it to keep himself out of the darkness. He wears a silver cross with “Jesus” inscribed on it proudly around his neck, and has the most positive attitude of any one I’ve met here so far. Yes, the VA has a lot of problems, but at least it exists. Yes, he is still haunted by his memories of Vietnam, but the flashbacks and the nightmares don’t come so often now. Yes, he struggled with alcohol, but he’s getting help now. Yes, Vietnam vets were treated terribly when they came home, abandoned by their government, ostracized by civilians who did not understand that it was possible to oppose war but support the soldiers, but now he doesn’t have to hide.
It took Stephen 35 years to be able to talk about his experiences like this. He needed to learn how to talk through the pain without triggering anything, needed to learn how to talk about his past in a way that was helpful to him. He’s happy now, happy and proud that he’s clean and sober, that he’s finally recovering from war. He’s only been here a week and doesn’t plan on staying long; unlike most of the men, he’s married, has a home, has a life waiting for him when he leaves.
“Once I lost her I just went off the deep end… just lost myself. I think, you know, I was just trying to kill myself with the drugs because of the pain, you know.”
William tells me he doesn’t have a lot to say. I know it isn’t true, that everyone has a story to tell, but I tell him its ok. He’s younger than most of the men here, in his late forties. He’s friendly and approachable, and on the surface he appears to be much less burdened than the other men, but his face is swollen under his eyes, and I notice that he can’t stop shaking his left leg, can’t stop twitching and jittering. He’s uncomfortable, with this situation maybe, or with life in general. He has PTSD, he tells me, like almost every man in the house, and he’s bipolar too. He glosses over much of his time in the service, and I quickly learn that it wasn’t the navy that damaged him, that sent him into a devastating spiral of addiction, leading him to this house for homeless vets.
It was the death of his wife, the loss of the love of his life, that broke him. “She was my soul mate,” he tells me. “You get lucky if you get to actually find your soul mate.” His defensive persona of the lighthearted funny guy slips up and he can’t stop the tears from coming, but he tries to blink them away, apologizes, cracks a joke to lighten the mood. The pain he feels is so incredibly raw, so palpable that suddenly I’m mourning the loss of this woman that I have never known, suddenly I’m crying too. Like many of the others he as an impressively good attitude, he appreciates all the help that he has been given since he moved into this house, but I know and he knows that this pain he feels will never go away.
Stephen leaves in February, Kenneth in early March. I don’t know where Walter is, but William is still here, and he’s friends with everyone. The other men call him Bill, and one tells me that he’s the guy to go to when you need a laugh or some cheering up. I wonder if he ever talks about his wife with them, if he ever cries with them. I wonder what the men are like when I’m not there, if they share their pain with each other, or if they laugh and joke and keep things light.
I begin to photograph veterans outside the house. I meet with a female vet from the VA, Christine, and she separates two prints from the selection that I brought, one of Kenneth and one of Stephen. Kenneth sits next to a window, staring straight ahead, away from the camera. The right side of his head is hidden in shadow, but his face is illuminated, and sunlight dances over his scars and folds into his skin. Christine tells me she can see the quiet resignation in his face. She points to the photo of Stephen, who sits back in his chair and gazes steadily and assuredly at the camera, his eyes tired but content, his face framed by a diamond of light on the wall behind him. He has stories to tell, she says. So many stories.