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Recently Homeless Veterans Provide Insight Into Opioid Epidemic

Valor Home offers transitional housing and support for homeless veterans. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

Lorain County has been especially hard-hit by the opioid epidemic plaguing many of our communities.  In 2015 the county saw about 60 overdose deaths, and last year the number more than doubled. 

Some of the people battling addiction on the frontlines of the epidemic are people also facing other challenges…veterans.

HASKEY STALEY: “Coming back from the ‘Nam it was very hard because we were considered baby-killers, psychos, we were really spit on. We weren’t given a hero’s welcome. We were treated very bad. It was hard for us to get jobs. People were scared of us.”

NORMAN SWINEHART: “You know I left an abusive family to join the military, and something happened to me in Texas. I’m not going to discuss that because that’s between me and the man upstairs. But I fell off. You know I wanted to go in and be a career soldier, but it didn’t work out that way.”

CARMEN TUCKER: “It’s not officially said, but ‘acceptable loss.’ They can go to other countries and have us expend our lives, and society somehow can brush some of it under the rug, until it gets exposed.”

We heard there veterans Haskey Staley, Norman Swinehart, and Carmen Tucker.  They’re residents now of Valor Home in Lorain, transitional housing for vets who are recently homeless and trying to get back on their feet. 

Valor Home looks like any other low-rise office building, sharing space with doctors’ offices.  But there’s space for art therapy, a conference room for visitors, private rooms for residents, and a common room with a TV and the coffee maker. 

That’s where some Valor Home residents met to talk with me about some of their experiences.

STALEY: “Either we were called drug addicts, or alcoholics, and this type of thing, and we weren’t, all of us weren’t like that.”

Again, Vietnam veteran Haskey Staley.

STALEY: “We just wanted to get some help to fit back into society, but people shunned us.  And it hurt a lot of veterans, so veterans gave up—they just took to drinking, and drugs, and stuff like that. And some now are still drinking and drugs, but they work now, they’re [functional].  Every day I thank the Lord, that I’m here, and since I’ve been here in Valor Home they help you get another place, and do the things that need to be done.  And I wish our government would wake up and look at, hey, we need help.”

Vietnam veteran and Valor Home resident Haskey Staley. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

Staley has been in Valor Home a couple weeks when I spoke to him.  He’s tall, wearing sweats and a knit cap, sitting around a collapsible table in the TV room. 

He says returning from war affected him and those around him.

STALEY: “My friends and the people that I was around, for a long time, was totally terrified of me. But they had a reason to—I was terrified of myself. My mom one day told me, ‘Baby…’ I said, ‘what, mom?’ She said, ‘you’ve got a black heart.’ I said, ‘mama, I don’t mean to have it. Because of what I’ve been through…’ She said, ‘Baby, you’ve got to work on that. You’ve got to continue to believe in God, and walk in this faith.’ I said, ‘well, it’s going to take a while. But is there a God?’ I had to learn there was. Because I’d seen so many different guys die right next to you.”

NORM SWINEHART: “Right next to you.”

That voice is from Norman Swinehart, sitting next to Staley.  He served in the early 80s, and has been in Valor Home two months.

SWINEHART: “I was in during the Cold War. Even though we were at peacetime, it was still a war. I seen two of my best friends right next to be got blowed up.  And every time it comes around Labor Day and Fourth of July I sit there and think to myself, I’d sit on my porch and sit there, ‘why you take them and not me? Why you let me live the misery to watch two of my best friends get blowed up, and there was nothing I could do about it?’  I mean, it pries on my mind all the time. It’s like, is there a reason?” 

Sometimes coping with these challenges is too much to bear.  Haskey Staley says he’s considered suicide, but thinks about God, and finds strength to fight that urge. 

Norman Swinehart says he’s tried to end his life more than 20 times.

SWINEHART: “I’ve been to prison, but I’m in prison in myself, for things that I’ve seen, things that’s happened to me. Like I said before, I went into the military and then something happened.  When I went into the military I wasn’t an alcoholic. I wasn’t a drug addict. But after I got in there, my whole life twisted around on me. I overdosed three times in Germany on heroin, trying to kill myself, because of what happened to me. And I’ve been doing it ever since, I’ve been running.  Lately I’ve come to grips and have had six years of sobriety just to come to grips with what is going on with me. And I’ve found…you’ve got to let the past go. Whatever happened back then, it happened. It’s not happening today.”

Veteran Norman Swinehart has been at Valor Home for two months. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

Swinehart says he’s in a program to help his addiction issues. He tried to quit and recover on his own but his will power isn’t enough.  He says his faith in God has helped make the last six years the best of his life. 

And looking for help is a first step.

SWINEHART: “You’ve got a lot of vets that are on heroin.  A lot of the vets don’t know that they have free healthcare the rest of their life.  A lot of guys their pride gets in their way, their ego gets in their way.  They don’t want to ask for help.  They’re doing this heroin, which isn’t heroin. When I was in in 1980-81, that was real heroin. This stuff today is garbage, they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re killing [themselves].  Most of the guys that are a lot of the younger cats that are coming home now from Afghanistan they got PTSD so bad they don’t know which way to run, so they’re shooting this dope and it’s killing them, because they’re scared to ask for help.”

Vietnam veteran Haskey Staley agrees that Post-traumatic Stress Disorder demands more attention. As he’s talking here, you also hear Valor Home resident Mike Thomas.

STALEY: “We died at 18-years-old, a lot of us did. And when you talk to veterans, no matter who you talk to from Vietnam, we all kind of feel like we left a part of us there. You know…”

MIKE THOMAS: “You kind of died, right? But you didn’t die.”

STALEY: “No, no, no. We didn’t die…as far as spiritually, but, emotionally.  Post-traumatic is something that our government need to really to deal with it. Over there we’re brothers, a band of brothers.  Come back here, we’re considered separate.”

The feeling of being shunned or locked out of a system is common among the veterans here. They say they have to fight for paperwork, fight for benefits, fight for treatment. These veterans say it seems they have to fight for everything. 

Here’s Carmen Tucker:

TUCKER: “So much bureaucracy was going on, I was becoming frustrated, so I wasn’t trying. But now I’ve got a support system, that if I make any kind of effort they’ll try to get me the things I need.”

Veteran Carmen Tucker has seen how a number of states interact with veterans, and he praises Valor Home. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

Tucker thinks there needs to be more effort toward recognizing military training in the private sector, to help vets get jobs. 

There’s been some movement in this direction, but Tucker thinks more can be done.

TUCKER: “Because we’re not educated by the civilian population, we’re educated by the government, they don’t even give these guys a chance. You know, because they don’t understand what they’ve been through. The Valor Home is a great start. It helps people get back to society, and gets society in touch with some of the things they’ve experienced. Everybody here’s not angels, but I don’t know too many rich people who are. *laughs*”

Tucker is originally from Elyria, and spent eight years in the service. He paints himself as a nomad of sorts, seeing how a number of states interact with veterans. He praises his experience back in Ohio at Valor Home. 

All of the veterans who met me here praise Valor Home.

STALEY: “And I will stand-up to anybody about the Valor Home. Because the Valor Home…”

THOMAS: “…it’s a sanctuary.”

STALEY: “…blessed to, I can’t ask for more, I can’t say no more…”

THOMAS: “I just wish we had room for more guys.”

STALEY: “Yes, because these people are wonderful.”

As these veterans are working to improve themselves and their situation, some are also trying to give back.  Norman Swinehart, for example, created a wonderful painting of a Native American that will be auctioned at a Valor Home fundraiser this month.  He seemed proud to say the starting bid is $100, helping to keep this place going for the next veteran who needs it.

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.