Having worn the uniform of two branches of this great nations military I feel a keen bond with our nations veterans. Over the years I have met a few veterans that stand out and touched my heart. The one that comes to mind is Sal (not his real name). I had known Sal for a few years an alcoholic transient (Bum, homeless guy, hobo, vagabond or choose your preferred label) for years. He was friends with Steve (not his real name either). Both of them were always respectful and cooperative with me over the years. I made it a point to check in on them every so often. Sometimes I was dispatched to calls requesting they be moved along and other times I just stopped to check on them. I would check them for warrants and ask if they wanted to go to jail. In the hot summers and cold winters sometimes they actually wanted to go to jail for a cool or warm and safe place to sleep. When they said they didn’t want to go to jail I left them about their business of drinking themselves to death. I make them pour their “Steel Reserve” out if they had an open container rather than giving them a ticket. I have never been a “stats” driven officer. I tried to focus on doing what was right. I figured life was hard enough for them living on the street, I didn’t need to make it harder than it had to be.
I ran into Sal one day in a stinky alley in my area. I was asking him about how his friend Steve died in the park a few days earlier. He was telling me the story and the prosecutor who was riding along with me was truly devastated by the circumstances. He said Steve had been having alcohol seizures and when he came back to the park he saw him non responsive. Then he said “being a former repertory therapist I started CPR and sent someone to call 911”. I said "are you freaking kidding me Sal you’re a repertory therapist?” He said “yeah, for several years, but I couldn’t save him he was too far gone when I got to him”. We talked some more as I had him pour out his beer. He told me he had been in the Navy, he said he worked his way up to chief warrant officer. Being a former Navy man I know how big of a deal this was. He said he got busted down to E6 when he got his first DUI then worked his way back up to E7 (Chief) now for those of you that don’t know but advancing in the Navy isn’t as easy as some branches. We talked about how he lost his home and family and now lives as a bum in a stinky dirty alley in the crapiest part of town.
It was remarkable to see that Sal was in fact a contributing member of society and had served his country honorably but now was looked down upon by all that drove by and passed judgment. I know for certain the prosecutor riding with me had a polar shift in his opinion on who the homeless population could be. Before leaving I extended my hand to shake his hand and said “Shipmate, is today the day?” In the Navy calling someone shipmate is like calling them brother. He looked at me and said “the day for what?” I responded “the day I take you to rehab to start the first day of the rest of your life getting back what you have lost.” At first he chuckled then he saw in my eyes that my offer was genuine. I could see that his eyes started to tear up as he contemplated what was happening. He laughed it off like it was a joke and pulled his hand away and said with a chuckle in his voice “and give up all this? No, today is not the day”. I responded “That’s fine, but when the day comes that you are ready, will you let me take you there?” He smiled and said “Sure”. We parted ways that day. When we drove away the prosecutor said “I had no idea that people like that lived on the street”. At one point Sal had been the salt of the earth. He was still a great guy. But something in his life had triggered pain that he felt an intense need to numb with alcohol.
Every time I saw Sal after that I called him shipmate he would smile and before I even asked it for the millionth time he would say “Sorry shipmate, today is not the day”. At times I could see just how much it pained him to refuse my help. The problem was like Steve, by the time I got to Sal it was too late. He was too far gone, and even though he had a pulse he was too far down his path to death to turn back. I brought him dinner one thanksgiving and he thanked me but his body didn’t process food anymore as he only consumed alcohol. He was too far into the depths of dying the death of an alcoholic. A few months later the seizures started and not long after that he was found dead, in that same stinky, dirty alley in the crapiest part of town. A g** damned Navy veteran that served his country dying a miserable death in a disgusting place with not even a glimmer of the honor he deserved. It pains my soul to think about it. It pains my soul that I did not get him the help he needed sooner. I often wonder if I had pushed a little harder if I could have saved him. I will never know for sure because it’s too late. I will forever wish that I was able to find out what caused him the pain he felt so I could help him. But that is a wish that will not come true.
Yes he made choices to get where he was but clearly he had a need for help. I recently saw a statistic that 18 vets a day commit suicide. That’s a vet every hour and twenty minutes killing themselves. Vets are 4 times more likely than the population to commit suicide and 8 times more likely to abuse substances. PTSD and TBI’s are real and we as a nation have not done enough to help our vets that need help. I know that it is too late to help Sal, but I can take what I learned from him and when I am on a call, slow down and ask the questions that need to be asked to see if I can get this person the help they need especially if they are a vet. As first responders we will deal with this issue more and more, we need to train and be prepared to help those in need. In the end, we can either be the vets best friend or worst enemy depending on how we handle things.