June 13, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer
I got to go, says Danny Wallace, fingering the top button of his sharp white shirt. The shirt's borrowed, he says. He's wearing it because he's raising the flag at Barnard Park, Hartford's South Green. He and a few other homeless veterans have made it their duty to raise and lower the flag every day since the city installed a flag pole a few months back.
Wallace is one of Uncle Sam's Misguided Children, a Marine who served stateside in the early '80s. No matter his circumstances now, he's here to raise the flag at least four times a week, he says. It's an honor.
But the shirt is due back to its rightful owner, he says, smiling, so they need to get this going. In preparation for Thursday, which is Flag Day, Brian Baker, assistant director at South Park Inn, made Tuesday's flag-raising festive. He brought doughnuts and coffee and set up a table in the park across from the Hartford shelter. He handed out fliers and brought out people from the Veterans Administration and the American Legion to answer questions.
Slowly, a group builds. Some are here strictly for the doughnuts, but more than a few ask to talk to Peter McMullen, a VA nurse who specializes in helping homeless veterans, or John P. March Jr., chairman of the American Legion's homeless veterans task force. Along with others, March, a Vietnam-era veteran, started an emergency shelter a few years ago in the Danielson section of Killingly. They couldn't open it this past winter because of a lack of volunteers and funds, but they're holding a fund-raiser and hope to have it running again.
But a veteran's well-being shouldn't depend on a pig roast or a motorcycle ride. Sometimes, veterans can't just come home and step immediately back into their old lives. Sometimes, veterans need help. March suggests that we'll be dealing with more families of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our warriors will return to mountains of personal debt, and if they slip down the economic ladder, where do you think they'll fall?
They'll fall right next to Wallace, who has diabetes. He's a cook who can no longer stand on his feet. Workers at South Park say he will get ahead, then get sick and end up back at South Park. He intends to get better, and get computer training. He wants and needs a job, but he can't have one that makes him stand for long periods of time. Even waiting for the flag-raising, he shuffled back and forth on his sore feet.
Roughly a third of the homeless population are veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says that on any given night, 200,000 veterans are out on the streets, and their circumstances are not necessarily related to combat experience. (We like to think that every Vietnam era veteran is a walking time bomb, but the numbers don't bear that out.)
This past legislative session, Baker, March, and others tried to push through a bill that would give more money to homeless veterans' programs. It was defeated. Transitional, supportive, and affordable housing are important, but meanwhile, places like South Park need more beds to get people plugged into the system. No one's talking about that, Baker said, while he and others turn people away for lack of space every day.
Back at the green on Tuesday, everyone is assembled - including some veterans from Iraq. Wallace takes the rope and slowly, hand over hand, raises the flag. An old man in a Yankees T-shirt walks over, removes his cap, and places it over his heart. Baker turns on a recording of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The flag billows out in the breeze, and Wallace steps back and places his hand over his heart. He served us. Now, how are we going to serve him?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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