PHILADELPHIA — The line of choppers slices through the stillness of the morning sky. John Simmons, paratrooper, demolition specialist, hangs in the doorway. The signal comes, and he steps over the edge--and into the waiting jungles of Vietnam below.
It is September, 1966. Simmons is 22. It is his first jump in country.
Simmons promptly hits the ground and fractures both ankles. Taken to a medi-vac hospital, he is given morphine for the pain. "And that was the beginning of the addiction for me," he says.
"Checkmate," Simmons grins, as he takes a last drag on his cigarette. The embers burn well into the filter before he drops the Kool into the coffee can on the table beside him. The men at the table dump the chess pieces back into the box and head inside the Veteran's Residence and Resource Center for lunch.
It is 1994, and this is John Simmons' home, for now. And he is still battling his addiction.
"I'm angry at myself for this," he said. "I'm 50 years old and I'm living in a shelter. It's about doing now. It ain't about talking anymore."
Food For Life, a nonprofit organization serving Philadelphia's homeless and hungry, opened the center in 1992 as an emergency shelter for the Delaware Valley's homeless veterans.
"The federal government estimates that 30% of the men sleeping on steam grates across the country are veterans," Food For Life Director Dave Dobson said. "We like to think of the veteran's center as being a one-stop shopping place for the vets."
Along with a network of 10 other support organizations--including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs--the center provides veterans who have been drug- and alcohol-free for 60 days with education, employment and "life skills" training, as well as counseling.
Simmons had been living with his sister in Philadelphia, holding down a job filling orders for an umbrella manufacturer, but she threw him out in September.
"She says I stole some money from her, but I didn't," he said passively. "When she put me out, I was angry and resentful for being wrongfully accused. But maybe it was God doing for me what I couldn't do for myself."
Now, he spends his days smoking, playing chess and spades, attending counseling sessions and reading the Bible. And he's learning to talk about the demons that have traveled with him since his days in Vietnam.
"Vietnam taught you to close down," he said. "I didn't allow myself to feel hurt or fear, and I needed a system to release those feelings."
Thirteen months and 25 days after that first helicopter jump in Vietnam, Simmons was back at an Army base in Augusta, Ga.
Addicted to drugs, angry at the world and plagued by graphic nightmares, he went AWOL 28 days before his scheduled discharge. Two months later, he was picked up by the military police. He spent his last 60 days as a soldier in the stockade.
After being discharged, he got on a bus to New York City. He did not return to Georgia--or to the woman he had married in 1966 on the eve of his overseas tour. And he never has.
"I was so angry and disillusioned with the Army when I left that by the time I had walked away from the bus station, I had given away all my military clothes to men begging," he said.
Of the decade following his discharge, Simmons said, "I was someone you didn't want to be around." He lost job after job because he was hostile to his bosses and fought with his co-workers. And the drug addiction continued.
"Heroin, cocaine, marijuana--I didn't care" he recalls.
Finally, estranged from his family and out of work, Simmons entered a drug treatment program. He stayed clean for 23 months and earned his GED at age 37. But when he had difficulty receiving GI Bill funding to continue his education, he went into a tailspin.
When he moved back to his mother's home in Williamston, N.C., in 1982, his world again started to fall apart.
"The land in North Carolina reminded me of Vietnam," Simmons said. "I started having flashbacks and nightmares. I went into deep combat awareness, wearing dark clothing, only going out at night. And I started getting back into drugs.
"One day while I slept, my mother came into my room. I had a .38 under my pillow and a shotgun next to my bed. My own mother was scared of me . . . and she was scared for me. And I was scared, too. I didn't know how to get help."
Not knowing what else to do, Simmons' mother gave him $500 and asked him to move out.
After another decade of drifting, he finally turned to the Veterans' Residence and Resource Center.
He's found another job, working two hours a morning cleaning the lot of a nearby convenience store, restocking its shelves and providing a second set of security eyes.
At long last, the dark walls of isolation he began erecting in 1966 are slowly falling away, and he can see a future beyond his addiction.
A few years from now, he said, "I'd like to have a degree in construction technology. I'd like to own my own home and be married again. And I want to work at renovating houses for use by women with children coming out of recovery programs."