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Nobodies -- with no one to turn to

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@ latimes.com.

IT is essential that someone like John Q. Nobody, as he calls himself, remind those of us who write columns for a living how far removed we are from people in desperate need and how little we can do to help them. He has e-mailed me for years in missives so garbled by bad spelling, skewed grammar and a limited ability at the keyboard that I’ve had trouble deciphering exactly what he’s been trying to say.

What did come through generally was a cry for help for a friend of 20 years, a veteran of the war in Vietnam who is losing his home and just about everything in it both because of an inability to function and a society that is taking advantage of it.

Lawyers, the government and family have all failed, says his friend, and the vet is in a state of “mental meltdown,” about to face the bleak prospect of living out of his 18-year-old car.

The e-mailer has always signed himself “faithful reader Craig in West Hills.” Only when I asked personal questions of him did he say he was just John Q. Nobody, but he is considerably more than that. He’s a voice from the crowd demanding help for a veteran who is in so many ways symbolic of those who have fought in this country’s wars and then been shunted aside when the gunfire and the bugle calls have ended.

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We’re seeing this in the unfolding disaster that is Walter Reed Army Medical Center and in the disgraceful dismissal of veterans who can’t find their way through mazes of VA legalese and eventually give up trying, suffering their needs in silence.

Craig is just one of the readers who have written me about veterans who, for a variety of reasons, have been somehow denied medical care or financial support and are either on the streets or living on the edges of society.

What can I tell them? Go to the VA? They’ve been to the VA and received little or no help. Hire an attorney? Attorneys want money, and a veteran who reaches the point of needing a lawyer too often can’t afford food, much less legal help. Go to the media? How many stories of need and injustice can we tell and retell before the subject becomes an echo instead of a voice? How much space or airtime is available to concentrate on the suffering of one segment of society when there are so many?

Craig, in one of his lengthy e-mails, brings that home too in his role as John Q. Nobody. When I wrote in a column about the medical coverage I received for heart surgery, he responded with a “how lucky you are” letter that listed his own ailments, his lack of insurance and his inability to afford treatment for them.

A sense of envy crept into his response, noting that I had so much and he so little: “You are enjoying the benefits of the American dream to do anything you wish and enjoy success at it” -- while he struggles to survive. “Be very glad you aren’t in the shoes of others unable to change the circumstances in their lives.”

I refuse to spend the rest of my days feeling guilty over the benefits I have acquired in a lifetime of work, sometimes seven days a week, locked into an emotional need to write and accomplishing a good life because of that need. But I am simultaneously aware of those who exist on only a fraction of what I have, who want for food and housing and the comforts of a culture that is often less than generous.

I write endlessly, and so do others, about those who live on the society’s margins, the “invisible people” who are a part of the world we have established. Even though our words might help a few, we are still aware of overwhelming privation in the lives of the many others who exist in the shadows, including veterans, the homeless, the uninsured, the mentally ill and those lost in the blur of skid row.

All that I can do to help isn’t enough. Government assistance isn’t enough. Aid from private agencies isn’t enough. Money dropped into a beggar’s hand isn’t enough. We are a culture of priorities, and those on the lowest end of the scale are not among the first beneficiaries of society’s largesse.

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I’m grateful to Craig for what he’s trying to accomplish by helping one veteran. He pledged to the man’s mother before she died that he would never stop trying to put her son back into a world of at least nominal success. He has been true to that promise. But I cannot apologize for my own good fortune compared to his life of misfortune, a subsistence that barely manages to keep him alive.

I suspect I will hear from representatives of private agencies who will offer help for both Craig -- John Q. Nobody -- and the veteran who is overwhelmed by the world he came back to when his war ended.

I would be content if they could, but still on my mind would be all the others, the tens of thousands who receive scant notice from the media and remain in the darkness of society’s scary shadow world.


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