Once we were soldiers

They are only translucent distorted shadows of the soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen they once were. They are now addicts at the very edges of their addiction — singularly focused on the need to feed their habit, be it cocaine, meth, heroin, crack, or good old alcohol. Their drug-induced lives dull their histories of medication prescribed for diagnoses of bipolar, manic tendencies, depressive, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, antisocial, and attention deficit disorders.

A hundred miles southeast of Denver in a shallow Colorado river valley of lush man-made crop circles there is an old military base. It was once a prison, once a hospital, once an asylum but here now in a meander of the Arkansas River it has become a refuge.

They find them living under the bridges, or they find them close to death in hospitals, or they find them sleeping in dumpsters, in alleys, in doorways – the invisible dregs and the leftovers of good lives gone bad. They find them and they take the willing ones here.

The base is called Fort Lyon and its new role is targeted initially at homeless veterans, and although they have since broadened their intake to all homeless people, veterans on the street still get same-day priority. The program is one of a kind nationwide and is run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. A quote straight off their Web site says it best. “The program model allows homeless persons to leave the community in which they continue to struggle with the cycles of addiction and homelessness for up to two years in order to help them attain sobriety and health stability.”

Myself along with former USMC Combat Artist Mike Fay were fortunate enough be invited to spend a few days and a couple of nights interviewing and illustrating some of the ‘colorful’ ex-military guests recovering at Fort Lyon. Mike and I have worked as a team before on a couple of occasions illustrating wounded soldiers, so we have a good routine. It goes like this. When Mike talks I draw, when I talk Mike draws, and when the subject of our artistic attention talks – we both draw and listen.

All of the men and women we draw are at least three months and 100 miles away from their last score. Most of them have passed through the need and are starting to hit that point in recovery where addicts higher up in their downward spiral might think they have it beat. All of these addicts recognize the feeling of invulnerability and control that being clean and sober brings them. They recognize it and reject it. They are all here because they made a decision on that gritty trash-strewn verge between life and death. They chose life. They chose a long miserable complicated arduous journey back to life. They know that they are only one score, one hit, or one drink away from death now. They have all looked down and seen their last legs.

Michael favors a nice fat artsy pencil, while I am gradually becoming one with my ubiquitous ballpoint. Mike likes the pencil because it allows him the opportunity to go in and correct mistakes. He creates these beautiful, sensitive, touching intimate portraits. I like ballpoint for exactly the opposite reasons – I can’t change a thing. You get the sketches mistakes and all. I like to think it makes me more decisive and that there is more impact in the immediacy, but it could just as easily be nothing more than my own stubborn foible.

Mike and I spend our days blending in and moving from veteran to veteran asking if they would be interested in spending an hour or two with us? One or two say ‘no’ but more say ‘yes.’ We sit in their dorm rooms and draw while they talk. We listen to stories that would make grown men cry — stories of personal calamity, loss, despair, and regret — and stories of war, horror, abuse and death. These are hard men and women who have lived and survived for years in a world that few of us really see. Their stories are at times unbelievable and some obviously fabricated to show themselves in the best light, and at other times all too believable and stomach-sinkingly sad. A few of them are reduced to tears as they talk about their descent to invisibleness.

The fort itself covers a good hundred acres. The central core of buildings – which date from throughout the last 120 years — is wrapped around a park like parade ground that feels more like a college campus than a homeless shelter. Move away from the central core though and the base has more of that post-apocalyptic –“walking dead” – feel, with streets of abandoned homes, baseball field, swimming pool and fire station, complete with peeling faded paint and swaying creaking shutters.

I did a little sketching outdoors. But this is no Eden-esque utopia. The sluggish and muddy Arkansas River is a breeding ground for insects, which fill the air and limit the ability of even the most hardy to spend more than a half hour in one place. I had to limit my outside sketching to moments when the wind was strong enough to keep the bugs at bay. The sketch above of the original hospital ward fronting the parade ground greensward I managed over a few sittings. I found it is difficult to draw while waving your arms around your head.

The homeless people are free to come and go as they please. But as much as this is a place to heal this is no spa. Everyone is assigned tasks in the kitchens, or cleaning, or plumbing and repairing. For many these are trades they once knew intimately. There is a bus into town each day. And if anyone wants to quit the program, the bus will drop them back in Denver. A few leave but almost all stay.

When a new bedraggled veteran internee arrives skittishly into the group it is the other guests that monitor him — peripherally most of the time. The new guy is still grubby and unkempt and fearful, but everyone gently makes sure he knows his way around. That he finds the staff he needs to meet. That he gets his room. That he arrives for meals. There is a distinct camaraderie here among those who have been here for six months or more. I think they recognize themselves in the new arrivals.

The dormitories are four stories high — two male and one female. The bedrooms branch off long corridors with floors buffed and waxed like any military base. On some levels the rooms still have door bolts and food slot openings from when the place belonged to the Department of Corrections. The windows face out onto grass and cottonwood trees.

After dark the central radiated heating creaks and the building groans. During the night there are sudden shouts from people locked in struggles inside their own dreams. I hope. The security guys are around but very low key with no uniforms and like most of the staff, hired locally. They are more helpers than minders. There have been no violent incidents at the facility since it opened nearly nine months ago.

Listening to their downhill stories, there is a horrifying similarity to them. Not because any two are the same but because often their personal tragedy stems from a single incident where a mistake, a tiny error in judgment, or a cerebral wrong turn led to something that could not be undone. They are similar to mistakes we all make every day. And now out of their homeless disguise and the grip of their addiction it is possible to see these men and women for what they really are. Just people.

At the end of my 48 hours embedded in the homeless shelter I find I have a different perspective on homeless folks in general. Gone is some of my callous indifference. It would be so easy for addicts to just keep taking the drugs, or to keep drinking. And it is so easy for the rest of us to write these people off and ignore them. It is far harder for them to quit and seek life again, and far harder on us to reach down into the murk and lend a hand. But if there are those willing to seek sobriety and society again it feels right to give them a refuge while they do so. I am not sure what the future holds for the project in Colorado but from my short time there it seems like it could be a template worth trying elsewhere.

The full set of sketches is available for viewing here. Fort Lyon Veterans.

You can read more about Colorado’s homeless program here.
Colorado Coalition for the Homeless

I’d like to finish up then by complimenting my co-conspirator and showing you a little of former USMC Combat Artist CWO2 Michael D. Fay’s work. Combat art is like any other Urban Sketching except that people periodically shoot at you while you are drawing. Mike is an artist in the true sense of the word. Many of his pieces are layered and multifaceted and he excels in a variety of media and disciplines from watercolor and oils to ironwork and sculpture. And Mike and his wife Janis founded, organize, transport and curate the Joe Bonham Project, which documents through art the experiences of the wounded. The exhibit moves around the country from venue to venue in no small part because Mike and his wife move it.

When I grow up I want to be like Mike.

You can contact Mike here cwo2mdfay@gmail.com

You can see the booklet on the Joe Bonham Project here Joe Bonham Art

The same rules apply. Don’t make me beg. Pick up a pen and pencil and draw. Chances are it may change your life. Then you can change others. Luck out there.

Got a question? Ask me. richard.johnson@washpost.com

Want to see more of my work? www.newsillustrator.com.

Richard is a field artist and visual journalist and works as a senior graphics editor at The Washington Post.
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