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Veterans of Failure : For Many Homeless, the Despair Was Born in a War Called Vietnam : Robert Clark: At War With the Cycle of Disintegration

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.

Big-Six Bobby took a long time to end up, homeless and drunk, at an alcohol treatment center in Santa Monica. By his own account, former Marine Cpl. Robert L. Clark, who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, has lived a headstrong, careless, impulsive life, milestoned by many jobs, many affairs, three marriages, much drinking, prison and family tragedy. In the last year especially, he said in an hourlong interview, he has ridden a downward spiral. He has been homeless for about nine months.

In fact, the circle of his life has become so constricted that events are beginning to repeat themselves, he said. It was his second visit this year to the treatment center and he had been sober three days, he said.

“See, before I never saw a retracing of an event,” Clark, 38, explained. “Everything was new. I was always going somewhere else. The faces were new and the problems were new and everything. But now I’m just reliving the last nine months . . . and I’m seeing the recurring thing. The last nine months of my life, what are they good for? Why even live them? They were worthless.”

Stories of Resentment

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Other homeless Vietnam veterans in Los Angeles tell similar stories of disintegration and debilitation. In some ways, Clark’s experience seems more hopeful than most: He has spent only months on the street, not years. He apparently maintains at least tenuous contact with his family; other homeless veterans say they have not talked to relatives in years, in some cases decades. And he has vowed to turn his life around--quit drinking, find a job, forget the past, start fresh.

But like some of the others, Clark shares a resentment toward the Armed Forces. “I came back (from Vietnam) with a pretty harsh attitude about the United States and an alcohol habit,” he said.

From Clark’s viewpoint, things went off-course almost immediately after he enlisted in the Marine Corps in December, 1968. (His service time was verified by a Marine Corps spokesman in Washington but other details of his record were not available.)

“I signed up for aviation (specialization) for four years and I was supposed to be guaranteed my first 18 months to go to Memphis, Tenn. . . . When I got out of boot camp they made me a 2533, which is a radio-telegraph operator, and sent me straight to Vietnam . . . That kind of gave me some dislike for the Marine Corps. . . . That was my first actual sort of dislike for authority, so to speak, as far as trusting. I had never been in trouble, never been arrested, or anything like that. I didn’t get arrested for anything until after I came back from Vietnam.”

In Vietnam he became a radio operator with the 1st Marine Division headquarters battalion, stationed atop a hill where large towns such as “Chu Lai and Phu Bai were not that far away.”

“We were like communications for different air strikes and things like that,” he said. “And then we would go out on patrol at different times.”

Reluctant to Talk

He was reluctant to talk in detail about his combat experience but did recall one operation for which his unit received a citation.

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“A lot of bloodshed, a lot of fighting, you know,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to talk about. It happens so quick, you’re just fighting, man, shooting. Lots of orders and shouts and I’m trying to give directions for air strikes and things like that . . . I was really kind of petrified at the time and I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing. You’d have to be there to understand how you could be doing something and not really aware that you’re doing it.”

Yet the most traumatic event of his service days, he said, happened in the States, in San Bernardino.

“After I was there (Vietnam) seven days, my mother shot and killed my father in self-defense,” he said. “They flew me home and we took him to Arkansas (where the family was originally from) and buried him.”

Mother Used Shotgun

As Clark recounted it, his father, then divorced from his mother, entered a bar one night in October, 1969, and, armed with a shotgun, “was going to take her (his mother) out of the bar and what he was going to do I don’t know.” But, he said, his mother “went down behind the bar and got a .22 and shot him and it severed an artery close to his heart.”

While he was in this country on compassionate leave, Clark said he considered going absent without leave from the Marines. But his mother persuaded him to return.

“I went back with a hatred and a hurt that I didn’t have when I first got there,” he said. “So I volunteered for anything; it was almost like having a death wish. . . . My father was dead, why did it have to happen? . . . I was there eight months on the hill and after a while I guess they sort of seen that I was on this death wish or something and they sent me into Da Nang. I talked to the people on the hill. I didn’t want to go for what they wanted to send me for. They wanted to make me an MP (military police). I didn’t like the thought of that. But they said, ‘Hey, you’ve got hot water and cold water and you’re drinking beer every night.’ (But) you’re still in Vietnam.”

Over the next four months, Clark said he “bombed out” as a military policeman and ended his tour in a communications unit.

Back in San Diego

Shipped back to San Diego, he was assigned to a battalion of Vietnam veterans who were “a little salty.” He explained, “You know, salty means your hair was long, you’ve been fighting a war, you’re mean, you’re ornery, you’re not spit-shined and shaved.”

He was ordered to do trivial work. “They had us picking up paper . . . you know ‘GI-ing’ the damn parking lot. . . . And that was my second bit of anger toward the Marine Corps.”

Because of his lack of discipline, Clark said he was sent to see an officer. “He told me my hair was too long and my boots weren’t shined,” he said. “He told me to be back in his office in 15 minutes, spit-shined and shaved and a haircut and so I went and walked out the gate. It’d been about two years, close to two years. I got a two-year screwing. I didn’t get my aviation guarantee, so I figured my obligation was fulfilled.

“I went home, later. I traveled around for three or four months. And once again I ended up talking to my mother and I went back. Because of the medal (the unit citation) and my service record, they didn’t do anything. They overlooked it. I stayed in a few more months but by then I was through with them.”

Four-Year Sentence

This time the Marines--and society--were not so forgiving. In 1971, while he was AWOL from the Marines again, Clark said he was arrested for driving the car in a series of armed robberies with “several” others. He was sentenced to four years, serving the time in a work camp and at Chino state prison. The Marines gave him an undesirable discharge, he said.

In a brief telephone interview, Hattie Clark recalled that her son had gone AWOL. But she said her memory of events nearly 20 years ago is not good. The last time she saw her son, one of six children, was about three years ago, she said. She declined to discuss other family matters, including the death of her former husband.

Out of jail, Clark took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Las Vegas “and that’s when I saw what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a ’21' dealer.”

He succeeded. For “the next six or seven years” he worked at a succession of casinos in the gambling city and acquired his nickname for his skill at drawing crowds around the wheel of fortune.

Later, he drifted out of Las Vegas back to San Bernardino and eventually went to the Reno-Lake Tahoe area, where he worked in casinos for about four years and kept up his heavy drinking, Clark said.

Liked Work in Casinos

Mike Couevas, Clark’s former boss at a casino in Reno, said Clark was “one of the best I ever saw” in running the wheel of fortune, also called the Big Six and the source of Clark’s nickname. “He had a lot of carnival personality to him” and was able to draw crowds to what Clark himself says is “basically a dull game.”

But for complicated reasons, a relationship became unworkable. Clark said he left Reno last November. “Ever since then I’ve been traveling, trying to get my life together, trying to make it,” he said.

When he arrived in Los Angeles last February, he was broke, and soon what remained of his possessions were stolen, he said.

“I slept in some weird places,” he said. ". . . Some people I met on the streets showed me an abandoned house and a couple of days later they came and kicked everybody out and boarded the house up and put up signs that said if anybody was living there they was going to shoot them. I went down with another friend to a big old Oldsmobile, like a ’72 Oldsmobile with plush seats in it. Stayed in the front seat of that for two days. They came and towed the car away. I met a girl and went out with some people to another abandoned house and three days later they came and tore the house down.”

‘I’m Judging Myself’

Through it all, Clark said, his conscience has given him little rest.

“I’ve been judging myself by my intentions rather than my conduct,” he said. ". . . I was saved in church in 1977 and I backslid and I’ve known that God has been taking care of me since then. He always has but I’ve been aware of it since then. So I’ve always had this thing that I knew what I was doing wasn’t right.”

Less than an hour later, Clark was on his way to an extended treatment program for alcoholics in Los Angeles.

Of that move he said: “No matter what happens, I keep my head up.”


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