Vietnam veteran, homeless and suffering PTSD, finds refuge in Syracuse housing

Sam Bristol served in the U.S. Navy as a SEAL during the Vietnam Conflict.|Mike Mahardy, staff photo

By  Mike Mahardy

Published from My Housing Matters

Sam Bristol remembers how quickly the fire consumed his house in October 2013.

He’d completed payments on those 32 acres in Parish, New York, several years before that, and didn’t owe money on the plot. That land was his, and it was quiet, just how he liked it, not far from where he grew up and spent most of his life.

But he didn’t have insurance. And although he had spent more than two decades doing odd jobs between Potsdam and Parish, he had thrown out his back in 2004, and subsisted mainly with the help of his daughter and two sons. But Bristol’s children didn’t have the money to help him rebuild a house, and they didn’t have room in their own for him, either. Bristol didn’t have a choice.

“I never thought I would be homeless,” he said. “I even contemplated suicide two or three times. I never thought it would come to that.”

He camped in a tent behind his son’s house in Parish for several months, but winter brought that to an abrupt end. So Bristol approached The Red Cross, which helped him with food and clothes, which were engulfed in the fire. The organization then pointed him toward the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The VA directed him to Chapel House, a homeless shelter in Auburn where Bristol would stay for only a few months. Construction was underway on a 50-unit, $11.5-million housing complex on Syracuse’s east side, and the VA told Bristol he should apply there because Section 8 housing vouchers helped the building’s tenants afford their rent.

Veterans are a special category in Section 8’s overarching policy. While others are put on a waiting list in hopes that more housing vouchers are passed down from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, veterans are pushed to the front of the 6,800-person line. The new VanKeuren Square houses many of them.

One recent Thursday, a year after he moved into the building in April 2014, the 65-year old Bristol emitted a smile. Despite a life of obstacles and setbacks, addictions and suicidal thoughts, Bristol was cautiously optimistic about his future.

“I think I’ll go fishing tomorrow,” he said. “The forecast says it’s going to be gorgeous.”

A Soldier’s Welcome

Bristol ran a hand over his left forearm, tracing the ink-stained skin from his wrist up to his shoulder. One tattoo, an Irish clover, reminded him of his daughter. Further up, near his elbow, was an eagle, the mascot of his favorite NFL team.

“It’ll be interesting to see who we draft,” he said. “It’s always hit or miss.”

Bristol isn’t like many veterans who etch military logos in a tattoo collage. Apart from his frayed U.S. Navy baseball cap, you could overlook his past as a Navy SEAL and the three months he spent in Vietnam.

Bristol enlisted during the draft. He wanted a highly trained soldier next to him in combat, not an inexperienced teenager fresh out of high school, as many of the men sent to Southeast Asia often were. And the SEALs, Bristol said, were the best of the best.

“The Navy gets called the lowest branch on the totem pole,” he said. “But who got Osama?” He pointed both thumbs backward at his chest. “We did.” Another grin crossed his face.

As U.S. military involvement decreased in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bristol returned to San Diego. There, his commanding officer struck him in a speeding Jeep. His headlights were off and he wasn’t paying attention; he broke Bristol’s hip and several bones in his leg and shoulder.

With the choice between a medical or honorable discharge –– Bristol chose the latter out of principle. On his way home, in various airport layovers across the country, Bristol witnessed a nation divided. Someone called him a “baby killer.” One woman spit in his face. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” he says today. “I wouldn’t want anyone to go through the war, and come home to that.”

Amid the protests and political climate of the American counterculture, Bristol began questioning his role in the military. President Nixon said there were no battles left to fight, but Bristol couldn’t shake the anxiety that came with post-war life. They called it shellshock. Today, it’s known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Alcohol helped Bristol avoid the flashbacks and panic attacks. “I drank very heavily back in the ’80s,” he said. “Being sober meant facing reality. And I was not ready for that.”

According to a recent study by the VA, 60 to 80 percent of Vietnam veterans seeking PTSD counseling report problems with alcohol abuse. And as a recent study by the Mental Health Institute shows, the suicide rate among veterans is 50 percent higher than among civilians. Last year, 22 veterans took their own lives each day — or more than 8,000 a year.

Bristol faced alcoholism and suicidal thoughts, that two-headed beast, for more than a decade after the Vietnam Conflict. Although he functioned from day to day, working odd jobs across Upstate New York while the decades passed, he was almost always drunk, making a living but remaining stuck in time. “Times were hard,” he said. “I can still remember the way I felt back then. Things are different now, but I can still feel it.”

Finding a Home

Sam Metz, head of Section 8’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program, assists veterans seeking housing. While some of them have found a decent place to live on their own, where the landlord accepts “tenant-based vouchers,” the majority of veterans are looking for something else. Metz and the team at Section 8 call them “project-based vouchers.”

Unlike regular vouchers, project-based ones are good at a specific property and can’t be transferred by a tenant who moves. So when Bristol approached Metz, the VASH supervisor told him about the new VanKeuren Square, which had 50 vouchers for vets only.

“Some of these cases are hard cases,” Metz said days before Bristol spoke of his time after the war. “Some guys are young and lost. But other guys are hardcore homeless who happen to stumble onto the VASH program.”

Metz sends the veterans to the VA, where they undergo physicals and other medical tests to determine their situation. Unlike those 6,800 on this area’s housing voucher waiting list –– which has been closed since 2012 –– veterans are pushed to the front in order to get them off the streets.

Metz mainly functions as an intermediary between Section 8, the VA and the 200 military veterans using housing vouchers in Onondaga County. Many of them are spread throughout the city of Syracuse, though VanKeuren Square is often the first place Metz recommends.

“In a lot of cases, once you have a place to go home to, a lot of the other stuff takes care of itself,” Metz said. “You can still do drugs and drink too much, but a lot of guys get straightened out when they don’t have to worry about where they’re going to sleep tomorrow.”

Sam Mentz, seen here at the Section 8 office, manages Section 8 military veteran voucher users as part of the VASH program.|Mike Mahardy, staff photo

Michelle Scott, property manager for the nonprofit Housing Visions at VanKeuren Square, helps vets make the transition.

It’s a demanding position, she said. She organizes community events, sorts through donations and mediates disputes among VanKeuren’s tenants. While many have beaten their abuse problems, others haven’t. They may return late at night, inebriated and aggressive toward their neighbors.

“All of the people living here were either homeless, or at risk of being homeless when they came here,” she said. Scott said this, substance abuse and PTSD all coalesce to sometimes create tumult at VanKeuren. In October, several tenants were expelled from the building after repeatedly vomiting in the halls, buying drugs on the premises and bringing prostitutes into the building.

There are more security cameras now, and Housing Visions, the organization in charge of the property’s management, has said it will crack down faster on repeat offenders.

Bristol himself doesn’t mind the drinking or the occasional fight among tenants. He just wishes for a little more quiet.

“This is the first time I’ve had some quiet in my life,” he said, folding his arms and nodding his head. “And I was a SEAL. If I have to, I’ll make it quiet.” Bristol lifted his chin, grinning.

A New Home Base

When Bristol first went to the Syracuse Housing Authority’s Section 8 office on the Near West Side, he was 25 years sober. His last drink was on a winter evening in 1989, and after that, he quit.

“I felt better almost immediately,” he said. “I still feel better every day.”

VanKeuren’s halls were quiet when Bristol stood up to take a walk one day this recent spring. He paced the corridors, pointing out several room numbers he had memorized from the year he spent living there.

“That’s Clifford’s room,” he said, shuffling past a closed door. “But everyone calls him Sparky. And that there is where Melanie lives. She’s become a very good friend of mine.”

A 20-something man passed by, wearing a navy blue USMC shirt. “Iraq,” Bristol said, after the young veteran had turned a corner. “Great kid, but he keeps to himself.”

Bristol’s 22-year-old son was in his father’s room, using his father’s laptop and Wi-Fi to pass the time. He had recently applied for housing assistance in Syracuse like his father did, but he had a felony on his record, and the Syracuse Housing Authority didn’t accept him.

“He followed the wrong kind of people into the wrong kind of situation,” Bristol said. “I guess a lot of us do that.”

As he approached his apartment, outfit with Stickley furniture, modern appliances and a view of Syracuse’s east side, Bristol leaned against the wall. He’s been slowing down and sometimes, walking to the grocery store, or to his favorite fishing spot, he gets short of breath at the end of the trip.

He has diabetes and bad lungs, and his bones never quite recovered after he was struck by that car shortly after he got back from Vietnam. He also threw out his back in 2004, back when he could still work for a living, and pay the taxes on his land in Parish. His days of travelling between Potsdam and Parish, working on assembly lines and driving trucks were over.

And just recently, Bristol underwent an operation to remove a tumor from his intestine –– it was Stage 1 cancer.

“It’s not the worst I’ve been through,” he said. He was optimistic they had caught it early enough.

At 65 years old, the majority of Bristol’s life is behind him. It’s been a time filled with turmoil, unfortunate circumstances and “curve balls down the inside of the plate,” as Bristol puts it.

He misses his house. And he misses his hometown. Many of his old friends scolded him for “moving to the city,” but he was comfortable in Syracuse. Late this spring evening, he and his son would walk up to Westcott Street for an early dinner. He was also planning a trip to Green Lakes later that week: April was ending, and trout season was fast approaching.

“This week is looking up,” he said, glancing out the hallway window and smiling once more. “It is what you make of it. It is what you want it to be.”