Once we were Soldiers

By Richard Johnson, Published: July 28, 2014

Two hundred miles southeast of Denver, in a meander of the Arkansas River, is an old military base called Fort Lyon. It was once a prison, once a hospital, once an asylum, but for the past 10 months it has been a refuge for people — especially veterans — struggling with homelessness, and in many cases addiction and mental illness.

They are distorted shadows of the soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen they once were. They were found living under bridges, sleeping in doorways or close to death in hospitals. They are here because they chose a long and complicated journey back to life.

For up to two years they can get counseling and job training and take community college classes as part of a residential pilot program run through the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and funded by the state. If anyone wants to quit, a bus will take them back to Denver. A handful have left, but so far 160 have stuck it out.

Because I’ve illustrated and written about troops in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the wounded and bereaved in the aftermath of those conflicts, I was invited to embed at Fort Lyon last month. I spent three days and two nights sketching veterans while they told me about their lives. Their stories — about war, abuse, death — were sometimes unbelievable, sometimes clearly embellished, and at other times all too believable and gutting. Many of the veterans pointed to a moment when they made a small error in judgment — tried a recreational drug, sampled an injured spouse’s pills, forged a prescription — and that wrong turn proved difficult to reverse. These are hard men and women. Some of them cried as they talked.

Here are a few of the dozen live sketches I did at Fort Lyon, along with the veterans’ stories in their own words.

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