By Alex Distefano
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Pedro Arteaga, for example, says as he waits for the elevator that his life really turned for the worse after he had knee surgery in 1994, when he started drinking to kill the pain. There might be some connection, though, to his time in the Navy in the '80s when he went on an assignment "where the shit hit the fan," he says. He was 24 and on the backup team for an extraction mission in El Salvador. As his squad moved in, Arteaga was about to say something to his lieutenant when a bullet popped a huge hole in the officer's chest. "I just started shooting anything that moved," Arteaga says. The problem was, the guys he was exchanging fire with were the other U.S. team. "I killed our own guys. I was the only one who survived. All I knew was, they were shooting at me, so I shot at them. That evening I got a bottle of tequila. That killed the pain." He's been at New Era for three years, and is suing for benefits after being turned down for a disability.
Keith Jones, who on a recent day was cleaning the floors in the lobby, never saw combat. An antiwar activist when he was drafted, he avoided Vietnam because his typing skills made him a valuable headquarters clerk. When he was discharged he moved around jobs in construction, warehousing, printing, steel mills, and shipbuilding. "Then came on computers and those jobs disappeared. In fact, every job I've had is obsolete," he jokes. When the shipbuilding company went to Maine, Jones went to care for his ailing dad in D.C. Gigs painting houses soon dried up, so he started drinking; he ended up at New Era about six years ago. "Everybody under 60 is still looking for work," Jones says of his fellow tenants. The trick for him is that when he goes to get a job, background checks show a criminal record he swears he doesn't have.
Down the hall is a computer room that Aldis Hodges built for the residents. He fixes and sells PCs to raise money for the facility and a little cash for himself, using a skill he picked up during his time in the Marines. Hodges's problems started when that stint ended. "I'm one of the many who was caught up in the first downsizing in the military," he says. "One day I'm in the military, the next day they tell me they don't need me any more. It was a traumatic experience for me. I was never prepared to deal with not being in the military after almost nine years of not having another care in the world." Hodges says the jolt of his discharge killed his marriage (from which he has two children) and left him with no place to go. He entered New Era seven years back. He says he's in no rush to leave.
But Dorcedious Davis is. She's trying to move out so she can take in her niece, whose mother, Davis's sister, died a couple years back. Davis was an Army medic in the Gulf War who was injured in a vehicle accident during Desert Storm. The damage derailed her return to civilian life. "I was working for the post office," she says. "The seizures got worse and I couldn't continue to perform my duties." A year laterfive years agoshe entered New Era. Since then she's obtained her college degree and built New Era's fairly large library of books and videos. She's lost some memory because of her injuries and has battled depression, but in New Era, "I've found myself," she says, surrounded by books ranging from pulp to fine literature and movies that, yes, include war films. She says she's careful about when to screen those flicks, because there are residents at New Era who have flashbacks.
Mullifield himself didn't bottom out until 1999, when he got divorced and ended up homeless. He entered a rehab center for vets and found sobriety, God, and a mission. "I seen what's going on with the vets," says Mullifield, a steady smoker who sports a couple of mean- looking tattoos. "I kind of carried that." He remembers too well what it was like to return from war. "When I came home I was off the hook, a gunslinger," he says. "You couldn't tell me anything."
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans believes one out of every three men who live on the street is a vet. But whether Iraq and Afghanistan vets emerge as a sizable homeless population in New York depends not only on how many troops have trouble, but also how large their woes appear amid wider struggles. A spokesperson for Homeless Services says veterans are only a small part of the population in city facilities, and that Iraq and Afghanistan vets haven't shown up in shelters yet.