Veterans Affairs

Veterans offer compelling stories at Miami outreach event

After eight years in the military and a traumatic tour of duty in Afghanistan, Dustin Lewis drifted onto the streets of Fort Lauderdale and into an abyss of cocaine and marijuana.

His wife left him. He hasn’t seen his two children in years. But in recent months, Lewis has gotten clean, moved into a veterans’ transition home and, on Saturday, found himself enjoying a simple pleasure: a haircut.

Lewis, 36, grinning broadly, sat in the chair courtesy of the Florida Barber Academy, which gave free haircuts to a line of veterans at Saturday’s outreach event at the American Legion Hall in Miami’s Upper Eastside.

For dozens of veterans such as Lewis, the event organized by the Veterans Affairs administration offered small tokens of appreciation: a dental check-up, free shoes, some strong coffee and a bagel.

But the event also provided bigger glimmers of hope: leads for jobs and housing placement, mental health counseling and help ironing out government benefits.

“I just want to work. I’ve been destructive for a very long time,” Lewis said. “I want to pay bills. I want to pay taxes. I don’t want to be become rich. I just want to do the right thing.”

Saturday’s Homeless Veteran Stand Down comes against the backdrop of the 10-year anniversary of the war in Iraq. Most of the veterans who attended, however, hail from earlier generations stretching back to the Korea and Vietnam conflicts.

For them all, the need for services is constant.

Clinics offered free HIV testing and free birth control. The American Veterans Newspaper gave away canned goods. Jesse Williams, 57, a one-time Army artillery man, filled a grocery pull-cart with razors, shaving cream and food.

He’s living at Miami’s Carey-Shuler Manor affordable housing complex while dealing with his long-running war with substance abuse.

“My biggest hurdle is drugs, cocaine. That’s taken a lot out of me,” Williams said. “I’m still seeking help.”

On the main stage, workers handed out shirts and shoes to a line of homeless veterans. That included Barry Strang, 54, who uses a wheelchair to deal with legs weakened by peripheral artery disease — brought on by eight years of strain as a U.S. Navy Seal.

He recently left the cold of Iowa, only to see his truck and all his belongings stolen from an Arkansas Wal-Mart. Now, he’s crashing at a friend’s Miami home.

“I’m also here for friendship and companionship. To meet some new friends,” Strang said.

Across the main hall, lawyers from Legal Services of Greater Miami and the Dade County Bar Association helped veterans with questions about everything from traffic tickets to settling VA benefits claims. Coordinators from the State Attorney’s Office looked up criminal records, to see if vets were eligible for sealing and expunging criminal records.

Tommy Bradwell, 62, an Army vet who fought in the 1969 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, looked up his record because he is no longer allowed to vote. Turns out, he is hampered by several arrests from the 1970s.

“A whole lot of misdemeanors I had forgot about from a long time ago,” Bradwell said. “It’s confusing for me. I’m hoping I can get clemency.”

Fort Myers native Michelle Summers, 38, a paralegal, came to Saturday’s event looking for leads on jobs. A six-year Army mechanic, she moved from Michigan to South Florida looking for work.

She is hampered by medical woes —because of a tumor in her brain, Summers had two surgeries, one that nearly killed her when she “flatlined” on the operating table.

Her speech is slowed now. Her memory is occasionally spotty. Her hearing is “so-so,” she says.

“I’m not the kind of person to ask for help. But I’m also not a normal 38-year-old woman,” the mother of two said. “But I would like to give back, maybe get a job helping other veterans. I’m just happy to be here.”

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