Help is reaching homeless veterans who need it

Bob Malone was not a guy with whom I enjoyed spending time.

He was prone to violence and unpredictable. He was an alcoholic who lived inside his own head and a man with more scars on his psyche than any 20 people I've ever known.

I met him on the streets, where he lived off and on for years. He lived in a musty tent in the desert about a mile behind my parents' home in Henderson, Nev.

We had an uneasy, but not altogether unfriendly, relationship.

I worried about my mom, who spent weekdays alone while my father was at work. My parents were empty nesters by this point in their lives and I caught Bob peeking over their backyard wall when I went over to do some work one morning.

I confronted him - and by confronting him, I mean I hurled myself over the wall and got in his face.

His reaction was a stunning mixture of pure fear and murderous rage and I started to second-guess my decision to be aggressive. I decided a constructive response might be the wiser course of action and we had a talk.

I eventually learned Bob was a 42-year-old Vietnam veteran who had been homeless since the mid 1970s, which put him on the streets for a decade by the time we met.

Bob was a man of contradictions. He hated the government, but loved his country. He was proud of his time in the service, but ashamed of things he did and did not do in Southeast Asia. He loved getting drunk, but hated being a boozer.

I never could get Bob the help he needed. Back then, the homeless problem was in its infancy and there were precious few resources to help the burgeoning population of street people and bag ladies. One day after a 5-minute downpour flooded the Las Vegas Valley, I went to Bob's camp in the desert and he was gone. I never saw him again.

An estimated 50,000 veterans, about half of them who served during the Vietnam War, are homeless on any given night, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A growing number of them, estimated at 12,000, served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another 1.4 million veterans are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty and all that goes along with being poor in a country that all too often fails to offer its people truly affordable housing or livable wages.

There are a number of services out there that can help.

According to Veterans Affairs, the majority of the nation's homeless veterans are men - 8 percent are women. Most of them are single and predominantly they suffer from mental illness, alcoholism and or substance abuse - as does the rest of the homeless population.

Bob could have been the poster boy for homeless veterans.

I never saw proof he was a veteran, but I grew up an Army brat and Bob knew the lingo. He knew his platoon, company, battalion, regiment and division. He knew the date he was drafted and the date he mustered out and the dates he served in Vietnam.

He knew as a corporal he led his four-man fire team and he knew all about the horrors of war in Vietnam. He wouldn't talk about his experiences when he was sober, but I couldn't get him to stop talking about them when he had liquor in his system.

Those experiences forced Bob to live in his head, and his head was a hostile environment in which to reside. He was his own worst enemy and he waged war with the demons that haunted his dreams.

These days, nobody helps homeless veterans more than fellow veterans. Veterans groups have popped up all over the country, including in Kingman, where the Jerry Ambrose Veterans Council of Mohave County has helped make a difference in the lives of veterans that are down on their luck, have health issues or just need someone willing to listen.

These men and women who reach out continue to serve. I wish they were around in Bob Malone's day.