Vietnam Tom shared the difficult realities of his childhood and part of his life after the war. “I grew up in an alcoholic home. My old man used to beat my ma, brother, and me. He was a World War Two veteran and it took me years to realize what he was looking for. We moved around a bit, he would always come home drunk. I was lousy at school, never cared for it. After I served in Vietnam, I did a lot of odd jobs. I worked as a welder for twenty years.”
One of Vietnam Tom’s fondest memories revolves around his beloved dog, Coco. “Coco was a chocolate lab. I had her for 13 years. I used to drop her off at Ma’s house on my way to work. She would lay there and listen to my mom play the piano, the organ, or another instrument. She loved going with my Ma during the day and she loved music. Labs are the most loyal and loving animals. I wish I could have another dog, but I can’t even take care of myself. Why would I drag a dog through this hell?”
A story of heartache emerged when Vietnam Tom revealed his journey toward homelessness. “After I lost my job, I became homeless. I have been homeless for around four years. I have never been interested in hard drugs, but I am an alcoholic. I’ve missed things I shouldn’t have because of it, it hurts me. I don’t even have a calendar so it’s hard to remember when things are. I was taking care of a buddy of mine that was also a veteran. He passed away and I missed the salute because I was drinking. I drink to try and block stuff out, maybe erase some things. Drinking gives me peace of mind. I drink until I can lay down. It helps with the pain and sadness.”
Vietnam Tom discussed the everyday struggles of being homeless and how they look differently in the winter. “One of the hardest parts about being homeless is never knowing where you’re going to sleep or what you will eat. Some nights I sleep behind a couple of recycling bins in an alley. I was housed at a hotel for a bit, but they wouldn’t let me drink and I ended up having seizures. I had to leave. Quitting cold turkey is not a joke if you’re an alcoholic. Catholic Charities is trying to meet needs, but they only have so much space. You can wait all day expecting a warm place to stay and then they run out of space. So I guess I’ll just freeze. I try to find some place out of the wind. If it’s snowing, try and get under a tarp, but if your sleeping bag gets wet, then what?”
Words of wisdom from Vietnam Tom wrapped up our interview. He wants us all to unite and help each other on this journey we call life. “I keep going because I am not dead yet. I have a chance to share my knowledge with someone younger than me so they do not have to suffer, I think that’s why I am here. I don’t know if I will ever be off the streets, but if I have the chance to help someone I will. One thing that I take away from my time in the service that I want to share is that it is not red versus blue, it’s red, white, and blue. I want everyone to help. If someone is in worse shape than you, just help. There are people out here who have nothing. There’s a lot of addiction and mental health issues, but if I had the money, I would buy one of these big buildings just so people had a place to go. Ultimately, try not to give up and remember that you are less than three meals away from being hungry. It can happen to anyone.”
Authors’ Note: We would like to thank Vietnam Tom for his ultimate sacrifice as well as all veterans that fought and continue to fight for our country. We, as civilians, know we cannot understand the experiences of veterans. We would like to take time to highlight two resources, La Crosse Veterans’ Center (608) 787-6411 and Veterans’ Support, for veterans experiencing hardship. You support us, your country, and you deserve support.
Artist’s Note: After talking with Vietnam Tom today, I found a friend. A friend that not only cares about those around him, but also this nation. Thank you for being a friend and listening, everyone deserves to have a listener in their life.