A Soldier’s Courage

John is a Vietnam Veteran who suffers from Agent Orange symptoms from his time serving as an Air Force pilot. Back then, no one knew about the herbicide’s devastating consequences, and as a result of John’s exposure to it, he has since suffered from weight and memory loss, respiratory problems, in addition to PTSD from his combat experiences. His health is further complicated by his HIV, forcing him into the hospital for the smallest of sicknesses; something as small as a cold is life-threatening for John. John’s case manager, Sara, was introduced to him when she began working with Pathways to Housing DC’s Veteran’s Housing First team in 2012.  John had been homeless for many years and very recently spent two years in a nursing home being treated by the VA. He fought hard to improve his health and eventually got better, but when he was discharged, John had no family or home to turn to, leaving him feeling hopeless. He was back to experiencing homelessness, spending cold DC winters on the street, too proud to enter a shelter.  At this time, John was incredibly frail and couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds standing at 5’3. Although his outward appearance caused Sara grave concern, when she first met him, John presented surprisingly well. He spoke as though he was fully aware of his surroundings. However, Sara slowly started noticing the mental health challenges he struggles with on a daily basis, like his delusions, most of which are associated with his time at war, for example, he believes he was involved in every major conflict in US history.

Although John experiences difficulty discerning reality from make-believe at times, he has the biggest heart, although he’d never admit it to anyone. When Sara’s team first approached John with the offer of housing, he immediately declined and said, “No, save this spot for a veteran who really needs it.” Sara was incredibly moved by John’s kindness, but also knew how vulnerable he was. She knew that if John didn’t get off the streets soon, he would die. As time went on, John continued to decline offers to be housed, especially since he knew Pathways DC only received a certain number of vouchers and he wanted other vulnerable veterans housed before him.  While still without housing, John actually referred his friend, Charlie, who also suffered from severe mental health problems and was highly vulnerable.  Like so many before Charlie, he initially was not interested in engaging with Pathways DC as he too had been made promises for housing in the past, all of which went left unfulfilled. On days when Charlie resisted meeting with the Veteran Housing First team, John would sit between Charlie and Sara on a bench near George Washington University and say, “Charlie, you need to talk to these guys.” After many visits, and the encouragement from his friend, John, Charlie was ready to find home. During the process of getting Charlie housed, John realized how supportive and committed Pathways DC was to getting not just Charlie, but all clients, housed. He set aside his pride and finally asked Sara’s team to help him find an apartment. Sara’s team listened to for what aspects of a neighborhood and home  were important to John- being in a safe place, close to a Harris Teeter, and near public transportation.  A few short weeks later and less than a year from the moment he started interacting with Pathways DC, John moved into his new apartment, where he still lives today.

John was immediately connected with a team and wrap around support services to help him manage his mental and physical health. Since then, John’s health has improved significantly- he looks stronger and he has finally put on weight. He loves walking everywhere, even though there is a bus stop directly outside his front door, he is eating better, taking his medications, and has reconnected with family. John has four daughters and one son, all of whom live all over the world. He was disconnected from them for over 20 years.  Now, John has not just reconnected with them, but regularly texts and speaks to them over the phone.  John is a completely different man from the time Sara first met him, as is his friend Charlie. To this day, whenever Sara sees John, he always asks, “Is my buddy Charlie still in his apartment?” Sara’s answer is always the same, “Yes, I’m happy to say that because of you Charlie is still housed and doing great, too.”