Northeast Times

INSIDER: The War Within

They are mil­it­ary vet­er­ans, most of them liv­ing lives in limbo, torn by war. They don’t have much. But they do have the Com­fort House. This is Times staffer Jenny Swi­goda’s story and photo es­say.

In war, once you shoot some­body — that’s if you’re close enough to see them die — it’s something that you nev­er for­get.”

Wal­lace Pres­ley still grapples with the hor­rors he en­countered — and took part in — as a young sol­dier more than 40 years ago in Vi­et­nam. Pres­ley fought at the Battle of Hue, one of the blood­i­est battles dur­ing the Tet Of­fens­ive in early 1968, when North Vi­et­namese forces un­der­took a wave of vi­ol­ent as­saults on South Vi­et­namese vil­lages.

It is an ex­per­i­ence that has traveled with him throughout his life, and the memor­ies of it of­ten wake him at night.

ldquo;In a sense we’re some of the lucky ones,” Pres­ley said while sit­ting on his bed at the Phil­adelphia Vet­er­ans Com­fort House.

His liv­ing space is small — a private corner of the base­ment where Pres­ley spends most of his time read­ing the Bible and oc­ca­sion­ally look­ing through fam­ily pho­tos, however pain­ful a re­flec­tion the memor­ies hold for him. 

Pres­ley en­joys his time alone. Crowds make him nervous. At times he needs to se­clude him­self, and he des­cends in­to his space while pulling down a POW flag to block the view in­side. No win­dows. Pres­ley feels safe here.

The Com­fort House opened in 1994 as a sort of mil­it­ary Ron­ald Mc­Don­ald House, in this case a place where vet­er­ans re­ceiv­ing can­cer treat­ment at the nearby Phil­adelphia Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion Med­ic­al Cen­ter can stay to al­le­vi­ate un­com­fort­able and costly travel situ­ations over the course of their treat­ment.

The non-profit home sits on a res­id­en­tial street in West Phil­adelphia. It can ac­com­mod­ate up to 15 ser­vice­men or wo­men and has a steady in­flux of pa­tients and, these days, home­less vet­er­ans. 

Pres­ley came to the house in 2009 while re­ceiv­ing treat­ment at VAMC for pro­state can­cer. He links his can­cer to ex­pos­ure to the chem­ic­al de­fo­li­ant Agent Or­ange dur­ing Vi­et­nam, a caus­al re­la­tion­ship still con­sidered con­tro­ver­sial with­in mil­it­ary circles. While Pres­ley was at VAMC, coun­selors re­cog­nized that he also suffered from “delayed stress syn­drome,” most likely from his com­bat time in Vi­et­nam. 

ldquo;I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t ac­know­ledge the fact that I needed help,” said Pres­ley.

For Wal­lace Pres­ley and many oth­er sol­diers like him, help didn’t come un­til much later. 

• • •

Frank Tra­montano Jr. served in the Army dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Desert Storm, the 1991 mil­it­ary cam­paign when U.S. forces re­pelled Ir­aq’s in­va­sion of Kuwait. Tra­montano was a com­bat sol­dier, but he also worked on jet en­gine re­pairs. While he did see com­bat dur­ing his time in the Gulf War, his ul­ti­mate battle didn’t start un­til he re­turned home and began work­ing as a car mech­an­ic.

One day, while work­ing on a car in an Al­lentown re­pair shop, Tra­montano began see­ing double. He had been ex­per­i­en­cing pain­ful head­aches for years, which he at­trib­uted to the chem­ic­als he was ex­posed to while ser­vi­cing jet en­gines. After a vis­it to the emer­gency room, he was in­formed that his right eye was as­cend­ing in­to his skull. A CAT scan re­vealed a tu­mor be­hind the eye and can­cer on the right side of his face.

ldquo;That’s when my night­mare began,” Tra­montano said, re­tell­ing his story in the hushed, pause-filled man­ner of one who has been through a lot and thinks about it of­ten.

Tra­montano began treat­ment at VMAC in 2006, stay­ing at the Com­fort House to avoid un­ne­ces­sary travel. After two sur­ger­ies, Tra­montano’s right eye was re­moved, the cav­ity covered by a skin graft from his thigh. He no longer can drive and re­lies on a bike to get around. 

Though his ten­ure at PVCH ended with the com­ple­tion of his med­ic­al treat­ment, the house re­mains a big part of his life. Feel­ing a sense of grat­it­ude and good­will to­ward the place that helped him through a dif­fi­cult time in his life, Tra­montano makes the 90-minute bus ride to Phil­adelphia whenev­er he can to in­spire oth­er vet­er­ans to over­come their demons, and to vo­lun­teer his ser­vices per­form­ing com­puter main­ten­ance at the Com­fort House.

While vo­lun­teer work may be his of­fi­cial “mis­sion,” Tra­montano re­turns for the re­la­tion­ships, too.

“We have a ca­marader­ie here,” he says. “We all served un­der the same flag.”

• • •

After re­turn­ing from Vi­et­nam in 1968, Wal­lace Pres­ley tried to re­sume the life he had put on hold. He took a job at Gen­er­al Elec­tric; he played bas­ket­ball at loc­al rec cen­ters and hung out with old friends; he re­turned to a girl­friend he had planned to marry be­fore the war. But ex­treme ex­per­i­ences can have un­fore­seen ef­fects, and Pres­ley re­turned from war a changed man. 

ldquo;I was so angry about a lot of things,” said Pres­ley.

He and his girl­friend soon fell apart. The years that fol­lowed were not easy. He fell in love with a wo­man and they even­tu­ally moved in to­geth­er. She be­came preg­nant and gave birth to twin boys — Ma­lik and Mar­quis — and Pres­ley worked hard to sup­port his fam­ily. 

Even­tu­ally, his emo­tion­al struggles put a strain on the re­la­tion­ship. After a few years, the couple split up. 

Pres­ley stayed in touch with his boys un­til their moth­er got mar­ried and moved to up­state Pennsylvania. Pres­ley hasn’t heard from his chil­dren in over 11 years. And though his can­cer treat­ment ended in 2010, Pres­ley re­mains at the Com­fort House for one reas­on.

He has nowhere else to go.

• • •

Ac­cord­ing to num­bers from the Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion, nearly 20 per­cent of the na­tion’s ap­prox­im­ate 2.3 to 3.5 mil­lion home­less pop­u­la­tion are vet­er­ans. In 2010, aware of such alarm­ing stats and rarely hav­ing a full house of vets in treat­ment at VMAC, the Phil­adelphia Vet­er­ans Com­fort House de­cided to also help the city’s home­less vet­er­ans.

ldquo;These are vet­er­ans that are wounded and left on the bat­tle­field of life. And our job, as a stretch­er-barer, is to go out there, pick them up and bring them back to the aid sta­tion,” says Dav­id Kami­on­er, Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or of the Phil­adelphia Vet­er­ans Com­fort House.

• • •

Ed­ward Bridges came to the house last Christ­mas. After a week­end of warm meals, hot showers and fresh clothes, he asked about stay­ing longer so he could try to get his life back in or­der.

Kami­on­er agreed, but warned that it would not be a free ride. Echo­ing their days of ser­vice in the mil­it­ary, all of the men stay­ing at the house are ex­pec­ted to work to­geth­er to cook, clean, and keep the place op­er­at­ing smoothly.

Bridges was sta­tioned in Wild­fleck­en, Ger­many, for 26 months and re­turned to Fort Dix in 1976.

ldquo;It was like a big party,” Bridges said, smil­ing from ear to ear as he re­flec­ted on the friends he made dur­ing his ser­vice years. 

He pulls out a photo al­bum and points to im­ages of men in uni­form — and then to those same men in the clubs, sur­roun­ded by wo­men and booze. 

But hav­ing fun did not de­tract from the ser­i­ous­ness that Bridges ap­plied to his duty. He was a boy then, in his early twen­ties, and he saw the Army as a place where he could be­come a man.

When Bridges re­turned to Phil­adelphia in 1977, after join­ing the Army Re­serve, he took a job as a se­cur­ity guard and stayed with that work un­til 2009 when, while work­ing se­cur­ity at a Cen­ter City re­tire­ment home, he was ac­cused of break­ing in­to a car. The ac­cus­a­tion cost him his job.

After a 10-month leg­al battle, dur­ing which he pro­claimed his in­no­cence, Bridges was ac­quit­ted of the charges. He is happy to have his free­dom back and his name cleared of a crime he did not com­mit, but the or­deal has had last­ing ef­fects. The ar­rest re­mains a stain on his re­cord and pre­vents him from re­turn­ing to the se­cur­ity work he knows so well.

• • •

The Phil­adelphia Vet­er­ans Com­fort House does more than shel­ter, feed and clothe its home­less vet­er­ans. The main ob­ject­ive is to provide sup­port for these men to re­gain con­trol of their lives. As Kami­on­er puts it, the house is a “safety net,” not a “safety ham­mock.” 

Classes and job train­ing are ar­ranged, ac­cess is provided to a com­puter, the In­ter­net and tele­phone, and en­cour­age­ment and sup­port help the vets re-find their way in the world. The Com­fort House also re­cently brought in a vo­lun­teer dir­ect­or of men­tal-health ser­vices, Hope Heffn­er. She primar­ily helps the home­less vet­er­ans pre­pare re­sumes and cov­er let­ters, as well as re­fine their in­ter­view tech­niques and gen­er­al job-search skills.

ldquo;There’s a give and take … we want to sup­port their men­tal health as best as pos­sible,” Heffn­er said, “but there’s also a laun­dry list of things we need to get done with them in a very short amount of time to make sure they have stable hous­ing and em­ploy­ment by the time they leave at six months.”

Now a man of 57, Bridges still struggles to move on from his mil­it­ary days. He ma­ni­ac­ally does chores around the house as his de­par­ture date looms. Heffn­er says that men like Bridges are partly stuck in a peri­od of their lives when they were giv­en or­ders and car­ried them out. 

ldquo;All of a sud­den their whole iden­tity … most of us, when we de­vel­op our iden­tity, we have ourselves at home and then ourselves that we present at work,” Heffn­er said. “For the sol­dier, work and play are one. So then we send them out in­to the world and we’re ask­ing them to sep­ar­ate again, and it’s very dif­fi­cult to do so.” 

Bridges found work at a nearby pizza shop, but he soon lost the job be­cause he couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced en­vir­on­ment. He re­cently reached the max­im­um six-month stay at the Com­fort House. On Ju­ly 5, he packed his bags and moved to an­oth­er shel­ter.

ldquo;I just hope we don’t see him drunk on a park bench in a couple of weeks,” Kami­on­er sighed.

Al­though the house does all it can to help these vet­er­ans in a very brief peri­od, it’s ul­ti­mately up to the in­di­vidu­al to fol­low through when he leaves.

The eco­nom­ic cli­mate hasn’t made things easy.

George Roache has fol­lowed a long and wind­ing path of mil­it­ary ser­vice that is matched only by the arc of his em­ploy­ment his­tory. Start­ing as an air­craft load­mas­ter in the Air Force Re­serve to pay for his mas­ter’s stud­ies at Columbia Uni­versity, Roache was de­ployed to Bos­nia in 1996 as a journ­al­ist for the Mary­land Na­tion­al Guard’s pub­lic af­fairs unit. 

When he re­turned to ci­vil­ian life, Roache worked for IBM, re­viewed doc­u­ments for a large Man­hat­tan law of­fice, and wrote for the Daily Times in Mary­land. In 2006 he was work­ing for Wicomico County, Mary­land, as a pub­lic in­form­a­tion of­ficer.

Fol­low­ing an elec­tion that brought a change in polit­ic­al ad­min­is­tra­tion, Roache’s po­s­i­tion was elim­in­ated and he found him­self “over­qual­i­fied” for most jobs on the mar­ket.

With no steady in­come, Roache took up res­id­ence on a friend’s couch for $20 a night. He also lowered his job ex­pect­a­tions.

“I was will­ing to do phys­ic­al labor. I was will­ing to start at the bot­tom of a com­pany and work my way up,” he said. 

Roache took what work he could find — stack­ing crates of frozen chick­ens at Per­due Farms, driv­ing a taxi and ghostwrit­ing a book for a fam­ily friend. 

Earli­er this year, Kami­on­er reached out to Roache through Face­book. The two had worked to­geth­er at a home­less shel­ter in Mary­land, and Kami­on­er re­called Roache’s work eth­ic and im­press­ive re­sume and in­vited him to stay at the Com­fort House. Shortly after, when an ad­min­is­trat­ive as­sist­ant po­s­i­tion opened there, Kami­on­er offered it to Roache. He gladly ac­cep­ted, and holds the po­s­i­tion to this day. He at­trib­utes part of his suc­cess in the job to the in­her­ent “trust­wor­thi­ness” of his salt-and-pep­per hair and his eye­glasses.

Un­der­stand­ably, Roache con­siders the Phil­adelphia Vet­er­ans Com­fort House a “god­send.”

“It’s a fant­ast­ic op­por­tun­ity for any­one who sees it as an op­por­tun­ity, who sees it as a plat­form for get­ting their life back to­geth­er,” he said. ••

For in­form­a­tion about the Phil­adelphia Vet­er­ans Com­fort House, vis­it the Web site at ht­tp://www.vetscom­fort­house.org/

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