‘I didn’t care about my life or anyone else’s’

Homeless. Veteran. These two words don’t belong together. How could someone who is willing to die for our country wind up on the streets, kicked to the curb after their service? How many homeless veterans are in Alabama? I want to draw them all - or as many as possible - and let them tell their stories.

According to an AL.com report in 2018, citing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study, there were 339 homeless veterans in Alabama. Of those, 52 were in the Mobile area, where I live. I’m starting locally, but I’m looking statewide. Those numbers are always changing. Thanks to organizations like Housing First, 151 homeless veterans in the Mobile and Eastern Shore area have been identified and transitioned into apartments in the last year. To kick off this project, we talked with some of them. (See the video in the story below.)

We hope their stories will shine a light on the issue and inspire more homeless and at-risk veterans to come forward.

Anthony Rivers, Houston County U.S. Air Force, ’79-‘83, Army National Guard

We met Anthony and more than 60 other veterans who are struggling with PTSD at a recent American Legion Veterans Retreat near Wetumpka, Alabama. There will be more stories to come from this retreat.

Anthony tells his story: “After I got out of the Air force, I was doing pretty good – I thought I was. I felt good about doing my patriotic duty and I liked the military, so I joined the Army National Guard which kept me connected to the military lifestyle. Before I went into the military I didn’t drink or do drugs or anything like that. I was clean cut. But in the military, I began to indulge in drugs and alcohol.

“Things started happening to me – the way I thought, the way I treated my family, my sisters and brothers. I got divorced because of the way I began to change. I was initiating the type of discipline on my wife that I learned in the military. I didn’t see anything wrong – that was the way I had been taught. It caused problems and eventually she left me.

“After I joined the Army National Guard I got into some legal trouble and had to leave. I wound up doing time in the penal system. Having a criminal record, it was hard to get a job. So I went to a community college and made myself into an electrician.

“I couldn’t understand why I kept getting in trouble. I was fighting my siblings, I had numerous encounters with the police. The people in my community called me crazy, psycho, shell-shocked. I had never been in combat. I served in the Reagan era, ’79-’83, which also caused problems because I couldn’t claim to have served in war time.

“I’d go from zero to 100 real quick. Anger. I had problems with co-workers. Supervisors would say certain things I perceived as a threat so I would just go off and leave the job. I couldn’t keep a job – I’m talking about a good job, an electrician job. I couldn’t understand. I’d go to church, I’d pray, read the Bible. Things didn’t get better.

“I had a friend, he was in the Army. We were drug buddies. He attempted suicide. Almost blew his face off. They’re still reconstructing his face right now. He went to the program at Tuskegee VA and after about 6 months, he came home and was totally different than the guy I knew. He tried to tell me to go to the VA. He’d say “You got this symptom, you got that symptom,” but I didn’t want to hear any of that.

“But here I was, homeless, fighting my family, the police, having incidents with people in the street – BAD incidents. I’ve had dots all over my chest numerous times where I could have been killed. I didn’t care at that time. I wasn’t taking care of my family, my children, my grandchildren. I wasn’t a man. I was drowning in my alcohol and drug addiction. I didn’t care about my life or anybody else’s.

“It got to the point where I attempted suicide. While I was on the Veterans Crisis line, they sent the police to get me. I went into anaphylactic shock from what I had consumed trying to O.D. Two days later I woke up in the hospital and saw my granddaughter standing there – she’s six years old. “Granddaddy, you sick?” she asked. That touched my heart. I knew I needed to get help. They had me in the Tuskegee VA about 2 weeks later.

“I’m currently in the homeless veteran program dorm facility. I found out I do have PTSD. I’m going to have an apartment in a different city now because I’m going to change people, places and things to become the new person I’m striving to be with the coping skills and knowledge of myself and my condition. They’re helping me with rent, utilities and furniture, and with my two-year degree in electrical technology, I’m going to put in for a job with the VA.

“Now I have hope. I learned about my illness and I thank the VA for it.”

Do you know a veteran in Alabama who is or has been homeless and may be willing to share their story? Send me an email – Jdcrowe@al.com. For homeless housing assistance in Mobile and Baldwin Counties, contact Housing First @ (251)-450-3345. For the Birmingham area, contact PriorityVeteran.org @ (205) 458-8920. In the Huntsville area, visit Stand Down together Huntsville, Inc. at www.standdownhsv.org, or call 256-527-9643. Or call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-424-3838.

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