Celebrate Wayne’s Independence Day!

27883282715_37fe0d7286_zBy Matt Gleason
BetterBox Project / Mental Health Association Oklahoma

Before Wayne was ever homeless on the streets of Tulsa, he was the son of an Army man turned forest ranger. To follow in his father’s Army boot steps, Wayne’s mother helped her boy apply for a special waiver that allowed Wayne to join the Army at 17.  Soon after, he left behind the lush green of the Arkansas forest for Germany, where he trained to rumble through the jungle as a tank driver.

After the Vietnam war ended, Wayne moved up quickly in the Second Armored Division. He went from tank driver to tank commander in just a few years. To remember the dear friends he served with — some who didn’t make it back home from war — Wayne had dog tags tattooed on his left leg with the word “Vietnam” printed on them.

In 1979, Wayne was honorably discharged from the Army. This meant transitioning to a life spent traveling by tank to hauling produce as a truck driver. In his 20 years driving big rigs, Wayne racked up 2 1/2 million miles and visited 48 states and parts of Canada.

His truck driving days ended when he received a grim diagnosis of stomach cancer. It should have killed him, it was so bad, but he survived the removal of a large portion of his stomach in 1999 and has been cancer-free ever since. Unable to drive a truck anymore, Wayne went on full disability and worked odd jobs when he could, like detailing cars and working in construction.

At this point, Wayne had survived the Army and every pitfall that can ruin a truck driver’s day, but none of that could prepare him for what came next.

After 37 years of marriage, including raising three sons, he lost everything after he and his wife divorced. The divorce, coupled with meth addiction and serious mental illness, quickly left Wayne on the streets of Tulsa.

“I basically left my life behind and walked until I found somewhere to sleep,” Wayne said. “For a year I slept in cars, abandoned buildings and wherever else I could.”

Eventually, Wayne realized he could no longer live a life that seemed so impossible to be his own. It was time to ask the VA for help, but that wasn’t the least bit easy.

“It’s hard to ask for help because you never think you’ll get in that position in the first place,” Wayne said. “You go from having everything a man could want to absolutely nothing. A lot of it is pride that keeps you from asking for help, but I had to accept that my pride was going to kill me.”

Once Wayne reached out for help from the VA, he began the long journey of getting clean, sober, and back on his mental health treatment plan. Then, after a year spent on the streets, Wayne finally got the good word that an apartment was waiting for him at the Association’s Yale Avenue Apartments. It didn’t take long to pack his whole world into a black garbage bag. Into the bag went 3 pairs of jeans, 2 pairs of underwear, 2 pairs of socks and 2 T-shirts. Bag in hand, Wayne was ready to open his new apartment door and start a new life.

Wayne now lives on a special floor of Yale Avenue Apartments reserved for veterans impacted by mental illness and chronic homelessness. Tulsa is actually on track to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2016!

Looking back on his first few weeks living at Yale, Wayne said he felt same the camaraderie with his neighbors as he did with friends in the Army.

“I can see their pain and they can see mine,” Wayne said. “We all help each other, just like we would in the service. It doesn’t matter how old we are or what branch of the military we served in, we all know how hard it is to start life over.”

Pride once kept Wayne from seeking help, but he recently said, “I’ve got more pride in myself now than I ever did before. It helps that I’ve got a job washing dishes in the Yale kitchen. A good job gives you responsibility again and makes you feel like you’re worth something again.”

If Wayne could give one message to a veteran experiencing homelessness right now, it would be this:

“You’re not just a number. You’re human. You’re a veteran and you deserve so much more than this. Ask for help and everything in your life will change for the better.”

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