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| 6 minutes read

Putting a Face on Our Homeless Veterans!

I never had enough quarters,” the decorated Vietnam veteran explained when asked why he was homeless. His story was surreal!  How could a lack of quarters render anyone homeless? But the gentleman had served our country for 18 years and deserved both our respect and assistance. So I invited him to my office the following morning and to my surprise he showed. By the end of that day, I appreciated the connection between “quarters” and his homelessness. Hence my 12 year friendship with a Vietnam veteran named Murray began and his 5-year stay in an Atlanta homeless shelter came to an end.

By the time Murray and I first spoke, he had been a fixture at an Irish pub near our office for several years. He sat at the same corner of the bar every day, nursing a cup of coffee by day and a mug of beer by night.  He seldom spoke to anyone aside from the pub proprietor (another Vietnam veteran) for whom Murray performed occasional odd jobs.  Consequently, we knew very little about Murray, other than what could be gleaned from his appearance.  He was sharply dressed, well-mannered and always wore a “we will never forget” POW-MIA ball cap.  For all we knew Murray could have been a lonely widower, somebody’s grandfather, or simply an old guy who did not play golf and had nowhere to hang out.  We had no reason to believe Murray needed help of any kind until the pub proprietor asked if we could assist Murray with a “legal problem".

In speaking with Murray, it was obvious he did not wish to impose on anyone and would never have asked for our help if the pub proprietor had not intervened. Murray was living off a meager social security income and viewed asking a stranger for help as the equivalent of begging.  He was a member of our "greatest generation” and was reluctant, even ashamed, to discuss the circumstances that rendered him homeless.  So it took several hours of what most would call “interrogation” to discover the full story of his life and military service. But once we heard Murray’s story, we understood the terrible injustice that had been committed and that he never should have ended up homeless in the first place.

We discovered Murray had served 3 separate stints in the Military between the mid 1950’s and the mid 1980’s. He first enlisted with the Marines in 1956, after quitting high school at age 16 to escape a troubled home life in Columbus Georgia.  During his first stint in the military, Murray was just a teenager, yet experienced: hydrogen bomb tests in the Bikini Atoll, search, rescue and recovery missions throughout the Pacific, and multiple patrols awaiting never to be fought battles with the Russians in an escalating Cold War.  After serving 4 years in the Pacific, Murray was ready to return stateside to experience civilian life as a young adult.

In 1960, Murray moved to Dallas Texas to begin a career working with a contractor who favored veterans. He started as a laborer, but was a fast learner and soon became a carpenter and then a crew foreman.  Life in Dallas remained mundane until one bright sunny day when JFK was assassinated just down the street from his job site.  Soon thereafter, the country became engaged in the Vietnam war and many of Murray’s friends were either drafted or enlisted in the Military.  He resisted a calling to re-enlist until seeing a news report that veterans returning home from Vietnam were being shot at, spit upon, and tormented by anti-war protesters in their own country.  He thought how uncivilized civilian life had become and was ready to join his friends in Vietnam.

Murray reenlisted with the Marines in the Fall of 1967 serving 8 years in the Seabees, using his construction skills to support Marines throughout the jungles of Vietnam. During his second stint, now a fully grown man, he survived: the Tet offensive, “Agent Orange”, carpet bombing of the Ho Cho Minh Trail, and the fall of Saigon.  For his service in Asia, Murray received a chest full of ribbons, medals and commendations for valor.  When the Vietnam war finally ended, he returned stateside and resumed working in the building trades.

Over the next 25 years Murray worked on building projects throughout the country, including mansions in Los Angles, office towers in Atlanta and Dallas, restaurants in New Orleans, and everything between.  Although never completing his formal education, Murray was well read, always employed and never once lived “off the dole.”  Between 1979 and 1985, Murray re-enlisted for a third time, serving 6 more years in the Marine reserves but finally grew tired of military bureaucracy.  When asked why he never completed the last 2 years of service required to qualify for a military pension, Murray explained “I could not take it anymore.”  Murray retired from the building trades at the age of 62, due to serious health issues, with no pension and only a small savings account.

In early 2002, Murray moved back to Atlanta, to live out his retirement years near his only surviving family members, a sister and 2 nephews. But the first 6 months of retirement proved to be as eventful as the first 62 years of his life.  Soon after reuniting with family, his sister and nephews drained Murray’s savings account and abandoned him.  Adding insult to injury, his application for elderly housing was rejected because he had lost his Texas driver’s license and was unable to obtain a state issued photo ID or prove residency.  Living off a meager social security check each month that was not sufficient to purchase 30 days of food and shelter, Murray’s options were limited.  He lived in extended stay motels each month until his funds ran out and then took to the streets until his next social security check arrived.  After several months of a nomadic existence shifting between extended stay motels and the streets, Murray took up permanent residence in a homeless shelter.

By the time Murray and I first spoke in 2007, he had been homeless for 5 years and had given up all hope of ever being admitted to elderly housing. For several years he had tried to obtain a State issued photo ID but was never able to do so.  In the post 9/11 era, most States require applicants to produce both a driver’s license from their former State plus proof of residency in their new State (e.g. lease, utility bill, etc.) in order to obtain a new photo ID.  Murray could not produce either.  He had spent endless hours feeding quarters into public pay phones (back when pay phones existed) trying to contact the State of Texas to renew his photo ID.  Yet, despite his best efforts, Murray was never able to obtain a photo ID from Texas, a photo ID from Georgia, prove residency or escape the homeless shelter.

The day that Murray came to our office, he and my former paralegal, Bob McKemie, a fellow Vietnam veteran, spent 7+ hours (the equivalent to $60+ of quarters in a pay phone) waiting on hold to speak with a representative of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. Once they got thru to a “live person", Murray had what he needed within minutes and obtained a photo ID in Georgia the next day.  A month later Murray was living in his own apartment in public housing for the elderly.  That same day, my wife and I bought him a cell phone and enrolled him on our cellular plan, so he never wanted for quarters again.  

Murray and I remained friends for the remainder of his life.  During his latter years, Murray became a voracious reader, enjoyed classic movies, watched the military channel, and enjoyed the comforts of a one bedroom apartment, he called home.  He and I got together regularly to smoke cigars, drink bourbon and discuss topics of interest involving construction, the military, and politics.  Fortunately, Murray was never homeless again.  

Sadly, Murray passed away on August 30, 2019 at the age of 82, from complications resulting from a second broken hip, after recovering from breaking the other hip. Every time I recall my times with Murray, it pains me to think how many other veterans remain homeless due to surreal circumstances  such as “I never had enough quarters”!


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