Paul is a survivor: a survivor of the fire that took his family; of the war that took his men; of the homelessness that took his hope.
But before he was a survivor, he was a young boy on a sun-kissed beach; a bright student with a mind for math but a distain for classrooms; a beloved son and brother.
Can’t Find My Way Home
Paul’s never stayed in one place for very long. He was born and raised “an Air Force brat,” moving with his family to Japan, the Philippines and several U.S. states all before he left grade school.
“I’m from anywhere and everywhere,” he said. “I’ve always been homeless, in a way. … I’ve always gone from place to place – always moving.”
When Paul was 8 years old, he went to stay with his grandparents in Florida while the rest of the family were living in California. A year later, the family was irrevocably scarred by tragedy when his father, sister and brother were killed in a fire.
“The only people to survive were my mom and my other brother,” he said. “My sister went into the trailer [mobile home] to save the dog. My little brother followed her everywhere – so he followed her into the trailer.”
The two children died in the blaze while Paul’s father — who ran in after them — was badly burned across 75 percent of his body and died at the hospital.
“They wouldn’t let me see my dad,” Paul said. “But now I can understand why. At that age, I would have been really traumatized. He was in bad shape.”
Paul attended the funeral with his mother and only surviving brother. He was just 9 years old.
“I don’t know what I felt,” he said. “I couldn’t comprehend what happened at that age.”
After the fire, the family carried on as best they could, and Paul moved in with his mother in Tampa a few years later. He was brilliant in math but hated school, so he dropped out, got his GED and began attending technical school for advanced electronics.
He enjoyed the education and the work — the base logic of a transistor made more sense to him than the arbitrary rules of English. But a career in the field would have to wait, because he joined the U.S. Army shortly after his graduation in 1968. A decision he would later call a mistake.
“I didn’t know that as long as I stayed in school, the draft didn’t affect me,” he said. “But I got a very low number in the draft, so I just went ahead and enlisted in the Army.”
Paul became a soldier during the deadliest year of the Vietnam War. More than half a million Americans were fighting in Southeast Asia in 1968, and nearly 17,000 never made it home.
“Unless you’ve been in a situation like that, nobody knows what it’s like,” he said. “I kind of went emotionally dead when I got off the plane in ‘Nam. Because they told you when you got there to consider yourself dead. … Once I was on patrol with a platoon of 20 guys, and only two of us made it back to the base. The rest were killed in action. That kind of tells you the odds.”
Paul wasn’t infantry, but Vietnam had a way of exposing all servicemen to the horrors of war. His job doing retrieval work meant he traveled with a platoon to remove electronics from downed aircraft, salvaging the parts and keeping them from falling into the wrong hands.
“I carried around 60 pounds of tools, no weapon except a knife,” he said. “One time, I was working on a helicopter and pulling a transmission. We had it about halfway out when my partner stopped dead in his tracks. When I looked, his head was blown off.”
In 1973, after three tours in Vietnam, Paul was discharged due to what he called “mental issues.” He had seen too much. He was once again a survivor and was forced to live with the guilt that often brings.
“I saw so many people killed while I was there,” he said. “But I didn’t get a scratch.”
After returning stateside, Paul couldn’t get comfortable. Civilian life didn’t make much sense anymore, and the anti-war sentiment that had been building portrayed soldiers as criminals. He was a stranger in a strange land.
“I was resentful, because I had been out there and risked my life for my country,” he said. “But when I returned home to the states, it wasn’t good. It wasn’t like nowadays, where they appreciate your efforts in war. It was like: ‘You shouldn’t have been there; you shouldn’t have gone; you’re a bad person; you’re a baby killer; you’re a murderer.’”
Those criticisms faded over time, and Paul — in his own way — tried to let go of the pain.
“I kind of disappeared,” he said. “I wanted to forget that I was there and just lock the door on the past. It doesn’t exist anymore – it doesn’t matter.”
Play the Game
Since then, most of his military benefits have dried up, at times making it hard to survive in an increasingly costly world. After recovering from the initial shock of returning home from war, he pursued a career in electronics.
By the time the war ended in 1975, video games were becoming popular and Paul’s friend helped him get a job at Atari. He was living in Tampa, but after five or six years working in the industry, he and some coworkers decided to go on a road trip across North America.
“We traveled the Appalachian Trail and all kinds of stuff, because it was cheap to travel back then,” he said. “But by the time we got to Salt Lake City, we were running low on funds. So we dead ended there and started looking for jobs.”
Paul found a job as an electrical engineer at a pinball company, troubleshooting and repairing machines. After proving himself, the company offered him a job at a distribution facility in Denver, and he lived there for a few years before joining his mother in Reno, Nevada.
He later worked in Silicon Valley and across the U.S. – everywhere from California and Arizona to Texas and along the East Coast. He worked on computers, robotics and other advanced machines.
“They kept sending me places until I got a call from my brother that my mother had died,” he said. “I don’t feel things like other people do. But I really felt my mom’s death.”
After losing his mother, he stayed with family in Colorado Springs until his brother suffered a massive stroke and died, leaving Paul with nowhere else to go.
“It was that simple,” he said. “That’s how I became homeless.”
He stayed in hotels and wandered from place to place until ending up in the hospital with a dislocated elbow. When he was discharged, hospital staff sent him to Springs Rescue Mission.
“It was cold and snowing and I didn’t have a place to go,” he said. “I think they felt sorry for me, so they sent me here.”
Life in a homeless shelter proved challenging for Paul. He was used to sleeping in strange beds in new environments, but it was the lack of privacy that really got to him. He stuck it out and soon became eligible for the Advanced Shelter Program in late 2018, because he was seen to be making progress in his journey out of homelessness. For the first time in years, he was surrounded by a community of people encouraging him to do well in life.
Paul continued his upward trajectory and was approved in November for a bed at Genesis House, a supportive housing program sponsored by Springs Rescue Mission. He once again had a place to slow down and to rest — a home surrounded by support.
Since then, he has made more of an effort to get out of his comfort zone. He goes to appointments at the VA, attends Bible studies and recovery meetings, and he’s even made new friends.
Paul keeps to himself, but he expresses a quiet gratefulness for his newfound home and the people who now surround him. Despite seemingly insurmountable hardships and trauma, Paul is marching forward down the trail to a new life.
* The photos in this story are not of Paul, who wished to keep his appearance anonymous. They are, rather, of another shelter guest at Springs Rescue Mission.
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