Veterans, Part Two: Walter

November 19th, 2014

“I visited death briefly. I don’t think I have that many runs left in me.”

Walter is sitting across from me in the tiny, familiar room, framed by a dizzying array of speckled of light coming in through the patterned curtains, and for the first time the door is closed. The rule is that I’m never supposed to be alone in a room with one of the veterans, I’m always supposed to be accompanied by a case manager, but they’ve made an exception for Walter. He has had a particularly troubled life, even for the men here, and he doesn’t want to be overheard by anyone. 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, using a forged birth certificate to escape a troubled family life. He was only 15 when he began drinking, encouraged by the men around him “to get fucked up every night.” He was only 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. Walter doesn’t hold back when he tells me his life story. I get the sense, like with so many of the men here, that he has been waiting to share these demons, waiting for someone from the outside world who is not a therapist to come by and show an interest in his life. He tells me how he and his first wife were both heroin addicts, how 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. 

Walter is oddly calm through all this, and is less engaged than most when I photograph him. Despite the heartbreaking words that he tells, he seems devoid of emotion, as if all his years of suffering have left him numb, have taken everything, leaving behind only this newfound, quiet determination to keep on living.