Meet Marvin Calhoun, Terence Griffin, David Sanseverino and Franklin Ackerman.
Ackerman is the youngest, at 23, and has attempted suicide three times.
Calhoun is a softspoken man who has won awards for his culinary skills.
Sanseverino was living in his mother’s home, with no utilities in 100 degree heat, before the house fell into foreclosure.
And Griffin, he lost his wife in a tragic car accident that nearly killed his then two-year-old son.
All four are homeless, unemployed military veterans and live in a home leased by the Georgia chapter of the Veterans Support Organization.
In the first 155 days of the year, there were 154 suicides by active-duty troops. That’s 50 percent more than those killed in action.
The suicide rate for veterans is much, much worse. According to the Department for Veteran Affairs, 18 veterans commit suicide every day, with the average age being 24.
Ackerman can attest to that.
Ackerman joined the Marines right out of high school at the age of 18. When he left at the age of 22, he had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Watching your friends die in Afghanistan, that’s hard to deal with,” he said.
When he came back home, everything that could go wrong, did.
He became a civilian on July 22, 2011, and was homeless by that October. Ackerman has always considered himself a strong-minded, stubborn person, but being out on the streets showed him some “hard and nasty truths.”
“When you’re wearing that uniform, you’re respected,” he said. “Once it’s off… well, then you’re just a veteran.”
The guys at the Veterans Support Organization attribute the high number of suicides to a number of things. For one, the transition from enlisted to civilian is much harder than expected. The first thing they’re expected to do is find a job, and many of them just don’t have the qualifications, especially those who enlist straight out of school.
“I have tons of experience in demolition,” Ackerman said. “I can teach you how to fortify buildings and booby trap stuff, but Kroger doesn’t really want that.”
Calhoun, the chef, had another theory.
“They think we’re crazy,” he said. “They say we’re overqualified, but they think we’re crazy.”
Jon Gravley is the director of the VSO in Snellville. He moved here last year from Dallas. He believes that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often ignored in this warrior culture. Rather than turn to professional help, they turn to alcohol or drugs.
“One of the reasons the homeless situation is as bad as it is, is because they have tried to self-medicate,” he said. “Look where they wound up. On the street, with nothing but a bad habit. PTSD is the leading cause of suicide, substance abuse and homelessness.”
Up From the Ashes
Gravley's goal at the VSO is to get the homeless veterans off the street, into a home, treatment programs if necessary and back out into the workforce. A lot of them don’t know where to turn once they come home, Gravley said.
This is how the program works:
The VSO finds or welcomes homeless veterans and hires them to do fundraising all over Georgia. They keep 30% of the funds they raise that day. They are also provided with housing, if they need it, like the house near Norris Lake where these four men stay.
They can keep working at the VSO, or they can move on. Gravley organizes meetings with the Georgia Department of Labor every Thursday.
“The Department of Labor should be the first stop for any returning vet,” said Gravley.
Gravley is not a veteran, but worked as a private contractor for the military. He came from a long line of military men, though.
“My father came from Vietnam with four bronze stars and five different types of cancer,” he said.
Seeing what his father went through when he came home is what motivates Gravley to help these men now.
To the four men living at the home in Norris Lake, what Gravley has done cannot be overestimated.
For Griffin, his and his son’s life has been changed.
Griffin’s wife was killed in a car accident around 10 years ago. His son, two at the time, was in the car as well, but because of the state of the car, emergency workers did not find him until they came back to survey the wreckage.
“God saw fit that he lived, and he’s doing well now,” he said with tears in his eyes. Griffin was his sole caretaker, but it was tough.
Things got so bad that he found himself living in a hotel with his now 12-year-old son. He walked by an area where the VSO was raising money, and started questioning the man.
“How can my government, when I’ve been in service for them, not have anything to help us?” he said.
After all the hardships, he was finally at his wit’s end. To his surprise, Gravley told him he could get him a home and a job by the next day.
He was true to his word.
Sanseverino, a quiet man with a powerful message, is the newest addition to the "family" in Norris Lake. He was medically discharged because of seizures, but he is having trouble getting the right paperwork pushed through.
A victim of abuse in his early childhood, Sanseverino said that he used to hold his anger very close. After years of struggling with it, he finally prayed to God for relief from his anger and bitterness. He said he felt led to write a letter to his father, and when he dropped it in the mailbox the burden "just lifted off."
Still, reintegrating into civilian life has been a challenge.
He signed a contract with Gravley that included an agreement to abstain from drugs or alcohol, something that is required of all the residents.
The VSO takes a different approach than many organizations, and Gravely said people are leery of scams. They are on the National Advisory Committee for the VA and have been an approved 501c3. Still, he cautions people considering donating to any organization to do their homework. His men always carry a binder with them with their proof of 501c3 status.
“He took me off the streets,” said Ackerman. “He gave me a wonderful job, and I sleep better at nights. I know this organization works, it saves lives. I get to sleep in a nice warm bed and buy myself food. It’s a blessing.”
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