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Veterans of Failure : For Many Homeless, the Despair Was Born in a War Called Vietnam : James Michael: Still Living on the Edge 17 Years Later

November 11, 1988|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

SILVER SPRING, Md. — 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.

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.

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.

James Michael volunteered for three tours of duty in Vietnam. He was shot in the head. He was taken prisoner and hanged from a tree. He saw dead soldiers stacked "like cords of wood" and watched children being blown to bits. He killed a civilian for his food and clothes, slitting his throat. "And I enjoyed it, too," he said.

Then he came home.

Except Michael didn't fully come home. Seventeen years after his return, a part of Michael is still stuck in Vietnam, fighting, killing, mistrusting, living on the edge, battling to survive in a hostile environment.

He has been unable to blend back into the civilian society he last enjoyed as a 17-year-old polishing his car in his parents' driveway. His adult life is a nightmare he never could have pictured then, when he thought joining the service would be a romantic, heroic adventure, "like World War II movies."

Anger, Guilt and Memories

Anger and guilt are a constant, crushing presence and he would like to commit suicide.

"But," the 46-year-old Texan said, "I don't have the guts to kill myself."

Michael does not know how many people he killed. When he thinks about it, he feels "like it's unbelievable."

He vividly recalls cowering in a corner of a hot tin shack somewhere in North Vietnam, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces--and a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. He heard a blood-curdling scream.

It was the other American who had been captured with him and who was outside, with the Viet Cong.

"I was praying, trying to distract my mind. I'd never heard this guy scream like that. And he was the toughest SOB I ever met in my life. I figured they must be killing him," Michael recalled recently during a one-hour interview at a Vietnam Veterans outreach center, where he gets weekly psychotherapy.

Michael's fellow soldier was not killed. "I won't tell you what they did to him," he said.

But the new twist on their torture techniques prompted the Americans to attempt a daring escape. When a Viet Cong soldier came with food, they knocked the door down on him. As the other American soldier fled, Michael put a choke-hold on the guard and broke his neck.

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