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Veterans of Failure : For Many Homeless, the Despair Was Born in a War Called Vietnam : James Michael: Still Living on the Edge 17 Years Later

Times Staff Writer

Lingering remnants of a haunting war can be found all across America this Veterans Day--at shelters, drug and alcohol treatment centers and soup kitchens.

They are the homeless Vietnam veterans, a troubled minority who--for reasons as complicated as the war they fought--now live on the margins, by choice or by circumstance.

Most of the 3 million veterans who survived their time in and around Vietnam have long ago readjusted to civilian life. Yet the incidence of permanent psychological wounding, resulting in chronic joblessness and homelessness, has been a bigger problem for Vietnam-era veterans than those of other wars.

Estimates put the number of homeless Vietnam veterans at between 50,000 and 100,000. Studies suggest that about a third of the nation’s homeless are military veterans. Vietnam-era vets, including those who served elsewhere during the war, make up the single biggest chunk of homeless vets--nearly 38%, according to a recent Veterans Administration survey. And as many as 40% of Vietnam combat veterans may have significant readjustment problems.

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A litany of misery, regret, pain and failure lies behind these numbers. Stories of homeless Vietnam veterans often share a surprising sameness. Family trouble, mental illness, drugs, alcohol, crime and violence are frequent themes. Sometimes the war looms large. Sometimes it is overshadowed by the anarchy of their lives back home.

But, according to psychologist and Vietnam veteran Ben Jennings, who works in a Vietnam vets outreach center in Silver Spring, Md., service in the Vietnam War is not the determining factor for a majority of homeless Vietnam veterans.

“A lot of studies on homeless people in general have found that the biggest factor is not, oddly enough, education or poverty or job skills or alcohol or drug abuse, but a poor adjustment to society, an inability to adjust adequately to society,” said Jennings.

“They were good soldiers. And then they were released with no training or preparation and have never adjusted to society since then,” he added.

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But there is also a smaller segment of homeless Vietnam veterans for whom service in the war is the cause of their plight.

“These are the vets who had extremely traumatic experiences in Vietnam, so traumatic they have never adjusted since. . . . They’re living Vietnam every day. They have never left Vietnam,” said Jennings. “They still think in terms of being vigilant, being careful, not trusting others, not trusting society. Every day is living on the edge of society.”

In the most severe cases, those in which the syndrome called post-traumatic stress disorder has been crippling, “we don’t talk in terms of a cure,” Jennings said. “We talk in terms of getting better. The memories don’t ever go away. What can go away is a lot of the pain.”

Whatever the reasons, they are out there and these are two of their stories.

James Michael volunteered for three tours of duty in Vietnam. He was shot in the head. He was taken prisoner and hanged from a tree. He saw dead soldiers stacked “like cords of wood” and watched children being blown to bits. He killed a civilian for his food and clothes, slitting his throat. “And I enjoyed it, too,” he said.

Then he came home.

Except Michael didn’t fully come home. Seventeen years after his return, a part of Michael is still stuck in Vietnam, fighting, killing, mistrusting, living on the edge, battling to survive in a hostile environment.

He has been unable to blend back into the civilian society he last enjoyed as a 17-year-old polishing his car in his parents’ driveway. His adult life is a nightmare he never could have pictured then, when he thought joining the service would be a romantic, heroic adventure, “like World War II movies.”

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Anger, Guilt and Memories

Anger and guilt are a constant, crushing presence and he would like to commit suicide.

“But,” the 46-year-old Texan said, “I don’t have the guts to kill myself.”

Michael does not know how many people he killed. When he thinks about it, he feels “like it’s unbelievable.”

He vividly recalls cowering in a corner of a hot tin shack somewhere in North Vietnam, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces--and a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. He heard a blood-curdling scream.

It was the other American who had been captured with him and who was outside, with the Viet Cong.

“I was praying, trying to distract my mind. I’d never heard this guy scream like that. And he was the toughest SOB I ever met in my life. I figured they must be killing him,” Michael recalled recently during a one-hour interview at a Vietnam Veterans outreach center, where he gets weekly psychotherapy.

Michael’s fellow soldier was not killed. “I won’t tell you what they did to him,” he said.

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But the new twist on their torture techniques prompted the Americans to attempt a daring escape. When a Viet Cong soldier came with food, they knocked the door down on him. As the other American soldier fled, Michael put a choke-hold on the guard and broke his neck.

Fleeing for his life, heading south, Michael ambushed “some guy cooking rice” so he could steal his food and clothes. “I cut him this way, across the neck,” said Michael, demonstrating his killing method. “And I enjoyed it, too.”

Continuing Problems

But he just can’t get over it. Michael has been hospitalized in VA psychiatric units three times, has been arrested on drunk-and-disorderly charges, has frightened away two wives, has wandered across the country and has not held a steady job for the last six years. He has slept in shelters, parks, halfway houses and his beat-up car, and on couches in the homes of vets and women he’s met along the way. Just released from a two-month stay in a VA hospital, he is involved in an “iffy” live-in relationship with a woman bus driver. (The Veterans Administration confirmed Michael’s service time, but other details of his record were unavailable.)

“Some of the doctors have told me, ‘Just forget it.’ All right, Doc, you got it! I forgot it! I’ll get on with a decent life and fit in society,” he said, singing a little tra-la-la verse.

“I wanted to be in a war,” he said, smoking cigarettes and talking in mumbled whispers. Brown hair wisped out of a Vietnam veteran baseball cap; a beard partially covered his face. He wore boots, jeans and a T-shirt, revealing a shark tattoo on his left forearm.

Wanted Movie-Like Life

“I enlisted (in the Navy) when I was 17, in 1960. It was something I always wanted to do. I was frustrated and tired of school,” he said. It is unclear when he switched from the Navy to the Army. “And after that I wanted to be like the movies about World War II. I wanted to have one wife, two kids, a middle-class house in Flagstaff, work construction, marry a teacher, the old ideas. But I got in a pile of blood.

“I wish to God I could work. But I know that if I take a job I’ll just get angry and throw something at somebody.”

So, instead, Michael lives off Social Security benefits and workers’ compensation he became eligible for after injuring his back on the one job he was able to hold after the war, working 10 years as a welder in a copper mine in Arizona.

“I kept that job because it was kind of like being in the Army in a way,” said Michael. “I was depressed and anxious and nervous but I worked in a job where you just sign in, do your eight-hour shift and go home, and you couldn’t talk because it was so noisy. A continuous, noisy job. You could throw stuff. It was a bunch of guys doing a job.”

May Never Hold a Job

In addition to his emotional problems, Michael has developed physical ailments, and he and therapist Ben Jennings believe that the combination of the two have made him permanently unemployable.

Like a lot of returned veterans, Michael took up dangerous hobbies, like sky diving and riding a motorcycle. One night, fueled by a “death wish,” he crashed his motorcycle and sustained several injuries, including trauma to his head. In Vietnam, a bullet had grazed his brain. Now his combination of ailments causes him to have memory and orientation problems, as well as a host of physical troubles. He said he is taking the psychotropic medications Tofranil, an antidepressant, and Dilantin, which controls seizures. He has cut back on his problem drinking.

In the motorcycle accident, “when my head hit the rock the most pleasant feeling came across me,” said Michael. “I thought, ‘I’m finally going to get to die. This (stuff’s) over with. I’m finally going to be able to get out of this crap.’ You know, before you die, your last thought is about your mother.”

But Michael lived through the accident, and he rarely speaks to his mother, who still lives in Texas.

Avoiding Family

“I don’t want to worry her,” he said. He also rarely sees his three children, two of whom were cared for by grandparents after their mother died. “I don’t like them to see me when I’m down,” he said.

Michael said he was poised on the edge of suicide another time, when he was still married to his first wife after his first tour of duty in 1960. He had been having flashbacks and nightmares, waking up sweating, screaming and stabbing pillows. He began drinking heavily to try to stop the “merry-go-round” of ugly scenes replaying in his brain. He was in the bathroom, about to cut his wrists. His wife called authorities and had him taken to a VA hospital.

Sometimes his therapy sessions in the VA hospital would end with Michael throwing books around the psychiatrist’s office, and he would be taken away in a straitjacket. He re-enlisted in the service nine years later, he said, precisely because he was having these problems and it seemed like Vietnam was the only place he could cope.

“It was either go in, or wind up in prison,” said Michael. He said he took and passed psychological tests, as well as a physical.

Looking for Danger

The second time he re-enlisted he signed up for the Army Rangers because it was the most dangerous duty he could think of.

“I think I went back to get killed,” he said, “because Rangers are supposed to get killed. I feel guilty about that to this day, about not dying. If you’re a Ranger you’re supposed to die, give it everything you’ve got.”

When Michael returned, there was no one to talk to about his war experiences.

“I would start to talk about this stuff and they don’t want to hear about it,” he said. “I get too graphic, you know. . . . Nobody wants to hear it. I didn’t like doing it. This was not my mission in life to do this (stuff).

“I always pictured myself as the kid at home in a T-shirt and sneakers polishing your car on Saturday morning and having a date on Saturday night. I didn’t hate nobody. I wanted to have a good time, I wanted to try in life, I thought if you worked harder you’d get more. Now I feel like I was naive and stupid. I didn’t know there was this kind of people in the world.”

Situation Is Improving

Despite his many travails, Michael is improving his situation. Although he may never hold a job, he collects enough benefits for food and gas and still dreams of buying a piece of land to ranch in Arizona. His days are filled with therapy sessions with other vets in the VA outreach centers and hospitals. He works on his car, and occasionally he and some vet friends will go fishing or even visit the Smithsonian Institution.

When he or a vet friend has a nightmare and can’t sleep, they’ll head down to the Vietnam War Memorial in the middle of the night, “and watch it until the sun comes up.”


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