It was still dark when I reached Dr. Vessey’s house in Pasadena. It was late 1999 or early 2000. As sunlight leaked over the horizon, we drove to an alley behind a liquor store where the good doctor was going to meet with some homeless people he’d been helping. One of the homeless people was a Vietnam veteran who wouldn’t let the doctor near him. That’s why I was along—to gain the man’s trust.
I was about to find out how bad combat induced PTSD could be when the VA considers a veteran is 100% disabled. Since the vet I was going to meet couldn’t be trusted to handle his VA disability check, his payments went to a pastor, who was his financial guardian. The pastor decided how much to give him when he came to the church asking for money. The VA disability was enough to rent a studio apartment, but this vet chose to live on the streets where he felt safer. His home was under a blue tarp hidden in some thick brush that lined the side of an empty lot. Later, the doctor drove me there so I could see it.
This vet’s story of abuse was inhuman and tragic. He was a chopper pilot in Vietnam and was shot down becoming a POW where, among other things, he was sexually molested by the Vietnamese guards. I’m not sure I would have survived what he went through.
Dr. Vessey and I arrived first. We parked the car and entered the alley to wait. The homeless people started to arrive one or two at a time until there were about a dozen. One even crawled out of the Dumpster behind the liquor store. The vet along with two women arrived last. We squatted in the alley and talked. I told the disabled vet my Vietnam story, and he said it was obvious that I’d been there. Then he opened up and told us his story.
Before he finished, a helicopter (media or police—I’m not sure) flew over, and the vet surprised us when he yelled, “Incoming,” and leaped to his feet running toward what he thought must have been a bunker and safety—the back, brick wall of the liquor store. He ran into the wall and the sound of his body hitting the bricks was a sickening thud as if he were a side of beef being hit by a sledgehammer. He bounced off the wall and collapsed unconscious. We rushed to him and gathered around. One of the homeless women cradled his injured head in her lap. There was a thick, swollen contusion on his forehead.
He had hit that wall hard enough to rattle the shelved bottles inside, and two men working in the liquor store came around the corner a moment later. They thought a car had hit the store.
This vet would always be a prisoner of war.
Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine, Vietnam Veteran, journalist and award winning author.
His second novel is the award winning love story and suspense-thriller Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he didn’t do while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.
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You know Lloyd, one thing I have always wanted to say to you on Twitter is thank you for your service sir! My uncle was a Marine. I’ve listened to many a story from him about his time in Vietnam. He was a tunnel rat. I was fortunate enough to attend a reunion with him some years back. Five marines that served together in Vietnam… and me, soaking in every laugh, every tear, and every story they told. Again, thanks Lloyd.
Thank you and you are welcome. I went underground once for a few hours and never again. As the decades have gone by, I think back to that one time underground in a natural cave where the space got so tight we were crawling through muck with our heads turned sideways to fit between the muck and the rock scraping the top of our skull. What were we thinking? Three of us Marines went in there and three of us came out. None of us went back.