A Different Sort of War
Stand Down at Salinas rodeo grounds helps homeless vets find services and support.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
Tracy Smith says he’ll never wear shorts around town because he doesn’t want to draw attention. But when prodded, he hesitates then rolls up his pant leg to reveal a dark, splotchy calf.
“I have probably as much strength in this leg as you do in your pinky,” he says. “My left leg, my left testicle – everything goes to sleep.”
That’s why he chooses to stand during our interview, leaning on a cane to lift himself from his seat at the edge of his bed in his handicapped room of the Howard Johnson in Marina.
The splotchy area is what burned in a brush fire eight years ago, now pieced back together with grafts from Smith’s back. He rises from the bed and turns away, then unbuttons and drops his shirt to reveal a perfect rectangle of paler skin on his back.
“You know how you peel a potato?” Smith says. “They peeled the skin off my back to my ass and put it on my legs.”
There’s the pain to contend with (Smith uses an electric wheelchair to travel more than two blocks) but the fire also demarcates a turning point. Smith, who turned 51 last week, speaks about life before and after “his accident” as two separate eras.
Raised on an Ohio farm, he joined the Army fresh out of high school. Alaska was the furthest from home he was ever stationed. After three years in the service, he began a decades-long career as a diesel mechanic, working on engines, clutches and brakes for large fleets. It was a job that took him to Tennessee, where his plan to burn away the overgrown lawn neighboring his girlfriend’s house went horribly awry.
After months of surgeries and lying bedridden in his parents’ Ohio farmhouse, Smith made his way to Livermore, Calif. for a $34/hour diesel mechanic job. Even with chronic nerve pain, he didn’t despair after he was laid off, instead traversing California looking for work. The first night he found himself sleeping sitting up against a church in San Jose, he remembers how sitting upright alleviated the pain, and the fear of being jumped.
Smith stresses that he’s unlike many homeless people – he doesn’t drink, hasn’t done drugs in 38 years and isn’t mentally ill, except for occasional bouts of anxiety and PTSD from the fire.
He would likely still be on the streets if he hadn’t attended a Stand Down, where homeless and veteran service providers come together. Next week he’ll attend one at the Salinas Sports Complex, where the rodeo ground will sprout a small city of services and a safe place to eat and sleep for 48 hours. Staff will be on hand to review military records that can help vets qualify for a number of services, sort out health or disability claims and make housing or employment referrals. Chaplains will provide counseling and veterinarians will tend to pets.
Smith’s case worker at the Veterans Transition Center in Marina, Benjamin Powers, says an added benefit of the Stand Down – Monterey County’s first – will be destigmatizing homelessness.
“There’s no typical story,” Powers says of clients at the 56-bed transitional housing program in Marina. He meets veterans ranging from their 20s to 70s, who find themselves homeless for any combination of reasons, like medical bills, divorce or substance abuse. “They’ve all suffered their own trauma.”
Most homeless vets wind up on the streets for reasons unrelated to their service, but Powers believes their experience might help keep them there.
“People who served have a higher threshold for discomfort and are less likely to seek out services initially because of pride,” he says. “They also have the skills to cope. Military training involves ability to live without comforts.”
Smith first learned about the VTC at a Stand Down in Boulder Creek. And last week, after 18 months living at VTC, he moved into a North Monterey apartment – his first in five years. Powers pointed him to Veterans Affairs, where Smith tapped into the HUD-VA Supportive Housing rental assistance program.
“HUD-VASH has been an absolute godsend for homeless vets,” Powers says. The federal program, launched in 2008, gave $50 million in vouchers to some 70,000 families last year.
Smith plans to help out at the event next week, which organizers believe will draw hundreds of vets. The most vital outcome for Smith is that vets like him are made visible: “For people to give a shit,” he says. “To me, that’s awesome.”
The Stand Down takes place continuously from noon Tuesday, June 19, until noon Thursday, June 21, at the Salinas Sports Complex, 1034 N. Main St., Salinas. To volunteer, call 883-3852; for free transportation, 883-8387. www.standdown2012.com