Waiting for Reinforcements
On the first Tuesday in August, Thomas Mullifield, who fought with the Army in Vietnam from 1964 to 1967 and struggled with alcoholism in the 1990s, was engaged in another battleagainst the overheated, leaden air filling the residence that he and 149 other vets call home on Commonwealth Avenue in the Bronx. It was the first day of the big heat wave, and Mullifield, with a donation check freshly deposited, was trying to track down air conditioners for the New Era shelter. He found some at a Home Depot in Mount Vernon. Victory.
The rest of the $62,000 (a gift from the New York State Association of Electrical Contractors and IBEW Local 3) was already earmarked for new furniture. But who knows where the cash would come from for a new paint job on the New Era Veterans residence or for the other projects that Mullifield, who works as veterans services director there, wants to tackle at the 13-year-old shelter? "It's unending," he says. So is demand. The waiting list to get into the facility usual holds 30 to 35 names of men and women (there are eight ladies in the residence now) who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and periods in between. The logjam is a fact of life, Mullifield knows.
But what bothers him are the phone calls he's been getting latelyfour or five a weekabout Iraq or Afghanistan vets who have no place to stay. None live at New Era yet; they have to go through the city shelter system first. But the fact that they are out there, just as he once was, pisses him off. "I can't see a young kid going through what I went through," he says.
A fulcrum question this political season is whether to set a firm timetable on when to bring the troops home from Iraq. But one way or another, sooner or later, they will come. According to one estimate there will be a million of them. As in the past, some will be fine when they return to civilian life, and some won't.
This summer several area veterans groups are claiming that New York City, for its part, is failing to prepare for the returning warriorsignoring the lesson lived by thousands of earlier vets who've ended up on the city's streets, in state prisons, or just generally lost. They're upset that the City Council failed to move on a bill drafted by Hiram Monserrate to place Veterans Resource Centers in every borough. They're peeved that Mayor Bloomberg's office of veterans services has a budget of merely $202,000 and a staff of only three. And they're furious that the city is now trying to collect back salary from reservists and guardsmen who stayed on the city payroll when they went overseas years ago.
The Bloomberg administration has responded that it offers veterans lots of benefits, like property tax breaks and preference in hiring for jobs. The city also spends millions indirectly on veterans through the departments of Homeless Services and Health and Mental Hygiene; together those agencies are providing more than $2 million to the New Era residence under current contracts. And when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said it was considering consolidating VA hospitals in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Bloomberg told a federal panel that they ought to keep them all open. "It goes without saying that these are all top-priority services, and they all must be maintained," he testified last year. (The VA announced last week that it will keep both facilities open.)
To local vets groups, the city's efforts don't pass muster. "Supporting the troops is more than a slogan. Supporting the troops is putting words into action," says Joe Bello, a Navy vet from the Gulf War era. A property tax break only helps if you can afford to buy a house, Bello points out. Job preferences only assist those in a position to seek such jobs. And a little outreach to returning veterans now, the critics say, could save this generation of vets from having to use city-funded shelters later.
Bello organized an angry rally on the City Hall steps last month featuring a panoply of vets groups: Vietnam Veterans of America, Black Veterans for Social Justice, Incarcerated Veterans Consortium, Veterans for Peace, American Veterans for Equal Rights, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). There were calls for state as well as city action, especially regarding testing vets for exposure to depleted uranium. And there was an undercurrent of political threat, with references to the 300,000 vets in the city and the power they could wield at the ballot box. Local pols had better listen, Bello warned. "If you do not," he said, "like the Bonus Marchers of the 1930s, we will return."
IAVA is already laying the foundation for a political movement with its VoteVets PAC, which funds only candidates who are veterans of the current wars. They're backing candidates in six House races this year, so the value of VoteVets' efforts won't be known until November.
At places like New Era, in the Bronx, vets are fighting more private battles. Many struggle with alcoholism, physical problems like amputations stemming from diabetes, or mental woes like post-traumatic stress disorder. Most residents get veterans benefits of about $600 a month, and many work outside the center. All pay 30 percent of their income to live in one of the single rooms at New Era, one of two shelter facilities in the city that cater exclusively to veterans. It's a permanent residence, so while some residents eventually move on, others stay indefinitely. There are movie nights, poetry groups, music sessions, a gym, counseling. Although residents are supposed to take care of themselves, sometimes there's food on hand for guys who can't afford their own, obtained at a local pantry or through Feed the Children or City Harvest. Mostly, there's company. "They find living here comfortable because they're with veterans and they can relate," Mullifield says. And they're candid about how much they blame their time in uniform for what's happened since.
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.
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