Trajectory

 

Dear Readers,

The following essay was drafted in 2010 after completing my first documentary, Beyond The Wall: Homeless Zone, and highlights the life of Jim Street, a man whose path and passion embodies the philosophy and premise of the ‘power of one.’  

Happy New Year,

Alivia

****

The trajectory of an object in motion, such as a bullet, is slightly curved. The Vietnamese sniper that took aim at Jim Street in 1969 must have known this fact. His first round, aimed a few degrees higher than sightline, was pulled down by gravity as it travelled forward until its curved path found its mark downrange — Lieutenant Commander Smith, the beloved company commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. Suicide Charley.

Jim Street, an eighteen year old grunt who dropped out of high school to join the Marine Corps, zeroed in on the deep black hole of his commanding officer’s neck as it began gushing blood like a geyser.

“Smith’s hit!”  

As if in unison with LCDR Smith’s lanky body, Jim’s cloak of invincibility fell to the ground, despite being flanked by the steel armor of four tanks and six amtracs. Now in the sniper’s sight, Jim has just formed the words that echoed along the tree line.

“Save the f’ing ammunition, we’re gonna get that sonuvabitch!”

Then the second shot rang out.

This is a story about how the trajectory of a bullet changed the path of a man’s life.

****

A bullet, originating from the French word ‘boullette’ meaning small ball, is made of four parts. The actual bullet is the projectile piece, usually lead or copper. The second, the propellant, consists of cordite or gunpowder and is held together with the bullet by the case. At the butt of the case is the primer which ignites the propellant when struck.

The bullet that struck Jim near his right temple penetrated layers of skin, fascia, and the temporal bone of his skull, lodging itself in brain membrane. But a bullet moving at high velocity doesn’t strike its target and stop moving – it reverberates and ricochets until the motion becomes inert. And the cavity created by this penetration leaves a lasting impact, regardless of whether the bullet is physically removed or not.

Acute and unexplained dizziness. That’s all Jim felt —  at first. Then, a sensation of warm ooze running down the side of his face blanketed his eyes and obstructed his vision. Aware of his lack of visibility, Jim began to panic.“I’m hit.” 

But before his panic could be expressed, it conceded defeat to dizziness, and then blackness.

Army corpsmen in Da Nang did their best to remove the bullet and fragments. They got most of it.  What they could.  What they couldn’t get was the jarring news out of Jim’s head. The Marine Corps was going to retire him.  His Uncle Doug, an officer also serving in-country who flew to Da Nang to visit Jim, gave him the news. That’s when Anger paid its first visit.

****

Jim was no stranger to capitalized obstacles. Just eight months earlier, in April of 1968, when he was a fresh-faced rookie straight out of Parris Island and Camp LeJeune, he was in orientation training held in a bunker south of Da Nang on Monkey Mountain, also known as Hill 647, with rounds flying overhead. For most folks, the two word tandem of ‘orientation’ and ‘training’ are an assurance of boring hours, presentations and sitting in a bland conference room. But for Jim Street and the 27th Marines, it meant gearing up for Operation Allen Brook.  That’s when Mortality sat next to him, an unnatural companion for an eighteen year old.

“Sargeant…” Jim whispered.

“What is it, Street?”

“I’m scared. I think I’m going to be killed.  I want to go home.”

Jim had enlisted in the Marine Corps at seventeen with his father’s permission and signature, despite his mother’s disappointment he dropped out of high school to do so. At the time, Jim felt he was facing a dead-end if he graduated; his grades weren’t that good and neither were prospective jobs in Central Pennsylvania, or where ever else for that matter, without a college degree. Since his family could not afford tuition, his plan to enlist, serve his country and earn GI Benefits for college seemed like a mature decision that his mother would embrace. She did not. Jim visited with a recruiter for the United States Marine Corps and quit high school the following Monday. All would go according to plan. But what he did not plan for was the presence of combat surrounding his every waking moment. And now he felt unhinged; his former modes of thinking and acting were completely bereft of realism in this new reality. Worst of all, he couldn’t shake the feeling he would be killed; and he was scared this wasn’t just run of the mill fear, but a premonition.

His sergeant replied in a calm voice, “Jim, how many times back home did you drive your car on bald tires?

“Sir, lots of times.”

“Jim, the chances you took there are the same chances you take here.  You may get hit, you may not.”

His morbid companion of Mortality was replaced by Solace and for the rest of his tour, buoyed by the sergeant’s words and his mother’s urging to read Psalm 23, he was no longer afraid of death or dying.

It was perfect timing.

After three days of orientation training, Jim’s unit choppered in to Goi Noi Island. Their mission was to clear out the safe havens the Viet Cong and NVA military units had created and rout the enemy. Accompanied by bulldozers and three Marine Amphibious Force (MAF) units, the first phase of Operation Allen Brook lasted over a month and resulted in successfully clearing the island. But it came at a cost. Marine casualties were heavy, and the images branded in Jim’s mind left imprints he still sees to this day.

****

Morphine helped Anger subside, or at least put it on layaway for another day while Jim was flown to Japan to undergo more surgery.

Awaking in a fog, he could barely make sense of the large, hanging white sheet in front of him. The figures walking behind the sheet cast shadows – and for Jim, these shadow figures came to symbolize doubts about his ability to recover and what the word ‘recover’ truly meant. He was limited by his ability to focus, visually and mentally. With his head swaddled in bandages and his body confined to lying in a sterile hospital bed, a once strong and fit teenager would pass out from the searing pain if his head turned a bit too far to the right. Or to the left.

Physical therapy consisted of a nurse elevating his bed, more and more, until he no longer passed out. One day he was able to compose the pain and stay conscious. So the next, he worked on sitting up straight. When he overcame the tingling sensation that preceded the usual loss of consciousness, he tried to sit in a chair. His nurses tied a bed sheet around his chest and fastened it to the back of the chair just in case Jim passed out – they didn’t want him to fall over and hit his head, worsening his injury. Held securely by the sheet, Jim worked on holding his focus.  When he accomplished that, he graduated to regaining his mobility in a wheelchair. On the last Sunday that Jim was at the hospital in Japan, his brother Ronny came to visit and took him to the chapel. Jim asked for assistance in helping to stand up and walk for their first time since the bullet felled him. As Jim rose to his feet, he began to pass out, but this time he knew he would try again.

****

Jim returned to the States in September, 1969. His first stop was Walter Reed Army Medical Center via ambulance, before being admitted to Philadelphia Naval Hospital for his final surgery. A metal plate was to be inserted in Jim’s head, but this last operation terrified him, and he lashed out at anyone and any thing near him.

To this day, Jim doesn’t like to talk about his time in Philadelphia. It’s a dark chapter in his life.  It’s the time Anger returned and wouldn’t leave. For five months, Jim was not confined to a bed or a wheelchair, but to the psychiatry ward in lock down.

He was Angry. Angry that he got hit. Angry that the Marine Corp retired him. Angry that he lost his youth. Angry that he couldn’t walk well. Angry that he needed another surgery. Angry that he didn’t know what to do, or what he’d be able to do, with his life with a metal plate in head and a purple heart in hand.

When his temper flared in rages, he would throw whatever was closest to him, such as his tray full of food, just to hear the painful smack against the wall. So he submitted himself to the recommended in-patient treatment and withstood the “med shuffle” of his doctors’ approach of dialing the right dosage of the right prescription to treat a wronged warrior.

One day Jim saw the neurosurgeon in the mess hall and asked when he could finally have the operation.

“We’re just waiting on you, Jim,” the doctor responded.

Jim acceded. The plate was inserted.  And soon afterward, Jim returned to his family home in Pennsylvania with his assisted disability paperwork, medications, and the prognosis:“You’re never going to be able to do anything again.”

****

Centuries ago, Galileo Galilei became the forefather of mechanics by wondering what the ideal trajectory of an object would be like in a vacuum, without forces affecting the path like gravity and drag.

But Jim Street was not living in a vacuum. Back home in rural Pennsylvania, he struggled. If Anger filled Jim’s first phase of rehabilitation, Fear filled the balance. He feared the doctors were right; he’d never be able to do anything with his life. So he self-medicated Fear by isolating himself from others. Avoiding contact with people, even his family, Jim kept Anger and Fear hidden. He bought an old ’48 Jeep, a “swamp jeep” as he called it, and worked on its engine during the three hours a day he could hold his concentration. Because of his injury, he couldn’t get a license to drive, so he would drive the jeep on the dirt roads that interlaced the farms, up to the local fire tower that was no longer in use, park his jeep and climb up to the top step. There, overlooking the rolling edges of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Jim would contemplate freedom — freedom from fear, from dread, from the belief he was useless.

“I almost went down the rabbit hole.” Jim will tell you quietly, recalling his spiral of disenfranchising himself from love, support and connection with his friends and family. “But my mother… she just wouldn’t let go.”

****

“Jimmy. It’s time. I want you to go back to school and get your GED.”  These were the words Mrs. Street uttered that again changed the trajectory of Jim’s life. It had been six years since the bullet that struck him left the sniper’s barrel.

Teaching himself to concentrate for longer periods of time, Jim studied and took remedial college courses to quality for entrance to Harrisburg Area Community College. There, he earned his GED and took college preparation classes for an Associate Degree in Liberal Arts. A counselor advised Jim to apply to Penn State.  He did and was accepted. During this time, Jim got married.

Being a combat veteran with a steel plate in his head, married and a decade older than his peers, Jim found it tough to fit in at first. He couldn’t relate to people. So he joined a fraternity to meet people. He started feeling better, but his marriage became strained and his anxiety of what to do next was a constant driving force. His favorite professor, Professor Beck, encouraged Jim to look into social work. He recognized Jim’s drive to success and more importantly, he had a unique qualification few others possessed — he could empathize with those who faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

In 1989, Jim Street graduated from Howard University in Washington, DC with a Masters Social Work (MSW) degree. He had already interned as a case manager for the criminally insane and later a public defender. Confident in his capabilities to write assessments and connect with people labeled as “hard to reach cases,” Jim was ready to enter the work force.

He dropped off a Form 171, an Application for Federal Employment, at a local Veterans Affairs Center and said three words:  “I’m a vet.”

****

On April 4, 1990, Jim Street began his career as a social worker with a new Veterans Affairs program called ‘Homeless Chronic Mentally Ill Program.’ Just three years old, the program was designed to help the burgeoning population of homeless veterans living on the streets receive shelter, treatment and care. While the name would later be changed to ‘Healthcare for Homeless Veterans,’ Jim embraced the program and his new ‘MOS’ wholeheartedly. The mission was of critical importance — his former brothers and sisters in arms, many of them wounded and disenfranchised, needed him.

Struggling with addictions, illnesses both physical and mental, lack of support, failed jobs and relationships and no roofs over their heads, Jim learned the individual and collective psyche of homeless veterans. Many had been living on the streets for decades. A heartbreaking number served in Vietnam. All had learned how to survive in any element, any condition, any means necessary by way of their training as a warrior. And one thing was certain; they would not be knocking on Jim’s door at the VA asking for help. Jim had to go out and find them.

So Jim took social work out of his office and into the field — literally. Based out of the Washington DC VA Medical Center, he mapped out his scouting locations. McPherson Square;  Lafayette Park; Rock Creek Park; the Route 66 Overpass by the Kennedy Center; Fort Dupont Park. And many more. No veteran in any quadrant of DC would be overlooked.

To find his displaced comrades, Jim greeted and talked to every homeless person he could find, veteran or not, and learned their names — given and ‘street’ names. Sometimes, just hearing their name or being greeted like a normal person, reminded them of their humanity. To build rapport, Jim would visit each location on the same day, at the same time, each week. He was there like clockwork. And the effect — while sometimes years in the making —  was that trust developed, forming the bedrock of belief that Jim Street was really there for them.

And that’s just what he was, for Jim’s goal was simple: Get veterans off the streets.

****

In the 1990’s there was a quandary of how to find permanent housing and lasting treatment for homeless veterans. Differing philosophies raged over what many believed was a cart and horse question of which to provide first, shelter or treatment? The VA would not accept people into their in-patient treatment programs unless clean and sober for thirty days. So Jim developed partnerships and alliances with local shelters. They helped with step one. The next step, Jim facilitated, and that was a combination of in and out-patient treatments, housing programs, work therapy programs and disability claims that were never, or mis-, filed.

An early adopter of the ‘housing first’ initiative, Jim believed that to work on a person’s set of conditions, or the reasons they became homeless in the first place, they must be provided the basics: Warm shelter in a safe environment, food, and a bed to rest. In this way, substance abuse, addictions and destructive patterns of behavior can be treated. But it is no small feat. Behavior is the hardest thing for a person to change. And according to Jim, it can only be changed in an environment that is safe and stable.

For many on the streets, destructive behavior is both the cause and the effect. Some have previous illnesses or disabilities, both physical and mental, but life on the streets compounds their fractures. Others inherit them when the end of combat and death is the beginning of endless nights of insomnia, crippling nightmares and flashbacks that spawn a downward-spiral of self-medicating methods of drinking, drugging, or isolating from friends and families. Street life compounds these fractures too, until histories and timelines, like minds, become blurry. There is no real point of reference as to when the personal destruction really began or when it will stop. The only question is: How will it end?  

Pastor Lewis, a minister at a faith-based shelter in DC called Central Union Mission, and a friend of Jim’s who is also a Vietnam Veteran, describes the fracturing process of a psyche as “cracks in a wall” —  i.e. how trauma or a series of traumas a person experiences may create small fissures that becomes deeper and more apparent after years and years of stress from adjustment related pressures, such as discord with families or co-workers, until cracks appear in the wall — the infrastructure of a person’s life.

Jim knows well these invisible compound fractures and cracks in the wall. He struggled too. Phantom remnants of the bullet, and the shrapnel of war, still lingered.

****

In the study of external ballistics, drag refers to the forces that act on an object in flight such as air resistance. Jim doesn’t know what year the dreams started, rather, the nightmares; or when they became so vivid that their occurrence happened during the day, too. But they were real and they dragged him down. The azure blue sky, the rice paddies, the people hunched over tending to their livestock, the sounds of mortar fire and the scents of death.

One day Jim looked out to the front yard from the large window in his living room. A Viet Cong sniper was across the street wearing a uniform that looked like black pajamas. He was in a rice paddy, leaning on a weapon, a rife. Jim saw him make a motion with his hand. The enemy was going to aim his gun and pull the trigger. Jim’s Marine trained reflexes responded. Then his wife called out to him. He snapped out of the daydream. The neighbor continued cleaning the gutter.

When he wasn’t working, his mind was seeing images, hearing sounds and his response was loud, anxious and angry. He found that when he was alone or at home, Vietnam was ever so present in his mind.  But Jim’s mind was not the only one suffering. His wife would later come to realize she had secondary PTSD. Their marriage suffered under its weight, and Jim increasingly felt he had little in common with his wife other than their beautiful son. Even things that were within his control continued the relationship’s downward spiral. He worked constantly. Work had meaning and purpose, but it also provided a cover for him to get away and stay away, of course with good excuse.

It was actually a co-worker who recognized Jim’s symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1972, Jim had visited a psychiatrist in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but the diagnosis was missed.

“You don’t have PTSD.” The doctor informed Jim. “You have shell shock, or battle fatigue. And depression.”

The doctor attributed his state of being to unresolved feelings and emotions associated with his injury. But his co-worker had seen cases like Jim’s, knew about his traumatic brain injury and combat history; and importantly, had the benefit of two decades of collective wisdom about this unseen disorder. She called a friend at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

“I’m sending a good friend of mine up to you to be evaluated for the PTSD program.”

Jim was alarmed.  He couldn’t do that program. It was a two week in-patient program and would require him to take sick leave, or leave of absence. He had a wife, a son, a mortgage. And he didn’t want anyone at work to know. He inquired about the outpatient program. Not an option. Jim saw no way around it and talked to his supervisor.

“You’re a good worker Jim and we need you. These vets need you. That means we need you healthy. Take whatever time off you need and go into treatment. We’ll keep the reason between you and me.”

****

In the privacy of the program where he was treated with compassion and dignity, Jim opened up to his doctors about his dreams, the pictures in his mind, his fears and his angers. The way he would lose his temper and yell. Even when his young son was present. It still chokes Jim up to think about that. But it began his journey of coming to accept things for which he had previously denied. Why accept pain? Why accept fear? He had always thought ‘acceptance’ implied weakness, abdicating a piece of himself. But what he came to realize is that his acceptance of fear actually unlocked his faith. Not just faith in himself, but in his life as it was created and shaped. Injuries and all.

With the benefit of this therapy, he also came to peace with the end of his marriage. When he and his wife first separated, Jim experienced terrible trauma. He lost his support system, his buffer to reality. But recognizing the falsehood of co-dependence, he was able to build again anew using his own strength, just as he had done twenty years ago when he forced himself to sit up straight despite the searing pain and blinding dizziness that rehabilitating his body and mind from the bullet wound required.

Renewed, and now enrolled in continued out-patient treatment for a disorder that had been misdiagnosed for half of his life, Jim Street returned to the streets looking for his homeless brothers with an even stronger sense of purpose. They too needed treatment. They too needed to look into the mirror, stare down fear and failure, disown it and build on that moment forward.

****

While sharp shooters can calculate bullet drop with predictable results, it’s hard to measure success in the Homeless Veterans Program. Sometimes it would take years for a homeless veteran to accept Jim’s offer to provide them shelter and enroll in his program.  Sometimes they never did. Such was the case of Thomas, a quiet Vietnam-era veteran who Jim often visited at the ‘9:30 Club,’ a local community dining facility for the poor and homeless.  Thomas ‘lived’ on a bench at Lafayette Park adjacent from the White House. One night, Jim received a call from the Emergency Room at a DC hospital. A man had been beaten in the park, and was brought to the hospital where he was pronounced dead, the result of a fatal blow to the head.

The man had only one piece of identification in his pocket, a business card: ‘Jim Street, Social Worker, Homeless Veterans Program.’

Jim went to the hospital and identified the man’s body. It was Thomas.

Jim didn’t want to lose another Thomas, so slowing down, taking a vacation or calling in sick were not options. By 2007, in his late fifties, Jim still kept up his diligent pace. He had two other motives for absorbing his life with work. The oldest is time. Time can be a conduit for the past, and Vietnam, to become present again. The second oldest reason is Jonathan, Jim’s only son, who followed in his father’s footsteps and enlisted in the military. Jonathan already served two tours in Iraq. His son, and a new generation of warriors needed Jim, and he wouldn’t let them down.

One evening at the Washington DC VA Medical Center, after the Homeless Program reception desk had already closed, Jim heard a knock at his door. A woman was distraught about her son, a homeless Iraq War veteran who had been abusing alcohol and was living in his car. He had called her that day and said he needed help. By God, she needed to find it, now, before the alcohol and the demons tormenting his mind could change it. Jim invited the woman and her son, an Army veteran named Paul, into his office.

He could tell Paul was under the influence. When he asked them to share more about Paul’s life after combat, the woman broke down in tears. She couldn’t get bear seeing her son in pain. At that moment, Paul broke down too. He was having nightmares, flashbacks and reacting to loud noises at work that he tried to drown out with alcohol, and his relationships with his family and ex-girlfriend deteriorated. He was out of money, out of work and was homeless; he had hit rock bottom. Jim found him shelter and enrolled him in a substance abuse program in addition to therapy for PTSD, of which Paul was diagnosed. Paul successfully completed the program, and today, lives and works in Montgomery County, Maryland.

“I don’t know how they do it, these soldiers today.” Jim shakes his head. “I don’t know how come home, turn off and go back out there and turn it on again.”  Jim refers to the multiple deployments and the mentality that must be required.  “I don’t think I would have been able to do that.”

 

****

At the age of sixty, after four decades of combined military and civil service, Jim retired from the Department of VA. There was no fanfare, nor would Jim have wanted it. Retirement was not an easy decision for Jim. He worried about how far a pension dollar could be stretched, but mostly he worried about a future without work; it had been such a large part of his life, his routine, his identity. He also felt anxiety about free time.

Now he fills it with ballroom dancing, and the companionship and love of his girlfriend Janie. “She is just awesome,” Jim beams. “She really strives to understand me, and we have a meaningful relationship. She’s everything.”

Jim has taken formal dancing lessons for several years; his specialty is west coast style ballroom.  Every time he goes out on that dance floor he thinks about what the doctors told him: You’ll never be able to do anything.

And he smiles.

If the sniper who took aim at Jim Street ever conducted a ballistic study of the trajectory of his bullet and the path of Jim’s life, he could not have predicted the following:

On Memorial Day weekend in 2009, Jim Street and Janie attended a screening of a documentary about homelessness among veterans at the Community Arts Center in downtown Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The documentary highlighted Jim’s work with homeless vets and his commitment to help them by visiting the same place at the same time each week to build trust and rapport. Afterward, a discussion was hosted with Jim and the director to address questions from the audience, town hall style. At the conclusion of questions, a man stood up in the back of the theatre.

“Mr. Street,” he said clearing his throat. “I know you were at McPherson Square every Friday afternoon at 2:00pm…”

He paused. The audience turned to look at this well-aged man, stoic and strong.

“I know because I still have your card.”

Jim sucked in a deep breath as he realized this man was one of his guys, his brothers.

“I am where I am today… Because of you.”

****

Alivia Tagliaferri is an author and documentary filmmaker. Her works include Beyond The Wall: The Journey Home, Profiles in Service: It Takes A Nation, Beyond The Wall: Homeless Zone, and her current project in production, Power of One: Preventing Suicide in America. She is a native of Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

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