Buddy Love served two tours of duty in Vietnam, he says, before military doctors decided he was schizophrenic and discharged him from the Marines in 1971--without a disability pension.
Today he is broke, unemployed and living at The Landing Zone, a downtown San Diego shelter for homeless Vietnam veterans. But he is better off now than he was a year ago, when he lived in the woods of Balboa Park.
San Diego anthropologist Bruce Harris believes there are more than 1,700 other homeless veterans in San Diego County. More than 1,200 of them are Vietnam veterans, a higher percentage, he says, than any other major city in the United States.
Harris, who has a doctorate from UC San Diego and directs the Downtown Transient Center, was hired by the city to conduct a survey of the homeless. The results, released in May, revealed that 44% of the estimated 4,000 homeless in San Diego County are veterans, more than 75% of them homeless veterans who served in Vietnam.
Dan Emer, regional director of the Veterans Administration, said that although there are many homeless Vietnam veterans in San Diego County, he believes the figures in the Harris report are too high. He did say, however, that the percentage of homeless Vietnam veterans in San Diego probably is higher than in other cities in the state.
Officials who work closely with the homeless suggest the city's large number of homeless Vietnam veterans is directly related to the role California military ports played during the war. San Diego and San Francisco were two major ports of entry during the war, they say. And because the veteran found favorable conditions in California, many returned when times got tough.
Of the homeless veterans in San Francisco and Los Angeles, about 20% are Vietnam veterans, according to Harris.
Many veterans told Harris they chose San Diego because of the weather--and if a person must be homeless, it is better to be homeless in San Diego.
The question that has not been fully answered, he said, is why there are more homeless veterans from the Vietnam War than from other wars.
One answer may be that they had more trouble adjusting to society when they returned, he said. Other veterans came home to marching bands and parades, while the Vietnam veterans came home to a country divided by civil strife and war protests. Everyone just wanted to forget about the war--everyone but the soldiers.
Love, 43, said he could not forget the war and even today has a recurring nightmare about Vietnam.
The dream is always the same, he said. He is being chased by Vietnamese soldiers through a jungle when he comes to a cliff with a stream at the bottom. He knows that if he gets across the stream he will be safe, but each time he jumps, the dream shifts into slow motion, the soldiers chasing him fire their rifles, and he wakes up afraid.
Love said he is an alcoholic and drug abuser. He checked into The Landing Zone to take advantage of its program to help Vietnam veterans lose their chemical dependencies. He said the chemical dependency is what prevents him from holding a meaningful job. Just last week he marked the 60th day he has gone without alcohol, he said.
Love began drinking heavily and taking drugs while serving as a member of the Army's Special Forces, he said; his fears of war were more than matched by the frustrations he faced when he was first released in 1963. He said he could not understand why he had fought and why the Americans for whom he fought were protesting the war.
"We were told we would understand what we went through when it was all over, but I never understood," he said. "I saw the people (protesting) and what they thought of the war. Ethically, they were right."
Love said the assassination of President John Kennedy also was devastating for him because he admired the President.
"We (Vietnam soldiers) were his fair-haired boys. I saw a picture of the Lincoln Memorial in the newspaper when Kennedy was killed, and Lincoln was crying," Love said, placing his face in his hands. "Boy, I cried. I cried so hard."
Unable to adjust to life on the streets, Love said, he joined the Marines in 1969 and volunteered to go back to Vietnam. He was then hospitalized for a mental disorder. But the problems were still there when doctors released him in 1971.
"They put a uniform on me and taught me how to kill people," he said. "Then all of a sudden they put me on a plane and sent me home and said, 'Be normal.' My family did not want to be around me when I came back. I was a different person. They thought I was crazy.
"People would always say to me, 'You're crazy,' and I'd say, 'You're right, and I've got papers in Washington to prove it.' "
An aide to Councilman Ed Struiksma, who asked that he not be identified, said he believes the Vietnam veterans had more trouble readjusting to society because the soldiers were younger and more immature than soldiers from other wars.