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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