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I was addicted and homeless. The VA took me in.

Image of a male volunteer handing out clothes to a male Veteran.

Vietnam Veteran Mike Doherty, once a patient at the Pittsburgh VA, now runs the clothing program there. Photo by Bill George, Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System.

By Tom Cramer
Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mike Doherty had a good job driving a truck for a vending machine company. He had a wife and two beautiful daughters; a nice house in a pleasant neighborhood.

“I had it all,” he said. “Then it all went away.”

Downhill

Doherty, a Navy Veteran who served in Vietnam, said things started going downhill after he injured his back at work.

“It seemed like I was constantly on pain medication,” he said. “All the medication led to my addiction to painkillers, and to alcohol. I was killing myself, and I was destroying my family. I ended up losing everything: my wife and kids, my job, my house.”

The Vietnam vet, then in his mid-50s, found himself sleeping on a friend’s couch.

“My friend was a Vietnam vet, like me, and he wanted to help me out,” Doherty said. “I slept on his couch for a year. But even your best friend’s hospitality wears out eventually. Finally one day he said to me, ‘You need help. I’m driving you to the VA.’ And that’s what he did. He drove me to the VA hospital in Pittsburgh.”
He added: “My friend’s gone now; he died of throat cancer a few years ago, but he’s the one who gave me the kick in the ass I needed. He was a good friend.”

Getting it Right

Doherty said he was pleasantly surprised by how he was treated by staff at the Pittsburgh VA’s Highland Drive Campus.

“I was apprehensive going in there, but they didn’t judge me,” he said. “They told me they were going to help me. They said, ‘We’ll get it right. We’ll get it right.’ I remember them telling me that over and over.”

The Navy Veteran said one VA nurse in particular stands out in his mind.

“She was one of the first people I met there,” he said. “She’s a saint. Her name is Mary Francis Pilarski, and she always had a smile. I don’t know how she was able to smile all the time. I remember her because she was just so helpful. She was always there for me.”

Green Acres

Doherty said it wasn’t long before he was transferred to the Pittsburgh VA’s transitional housing unit in Cowansville, Pa.

"It seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It’s way out in the country, surrounded by farms and cows. It used to be a women’s prison. I guess that’s why my room had a steel door and no windows. But you know what? It was a step up for me. I had been sleeping on someone’s couch and now I had my own room.”

Doherty said not all of his fellow patients at Cowansville appreciated the rural aspects of their new environment.

“I was raised on a farm, so this felt like I had come home,” he said. “But some of the Veterans couldn’t get out of there fast enough. It’s not for everyone. But I liked it. That’s why I stayed there for two years.”

Doherty said volunteers from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) would drive him and his fellow patients from Cowansville to the Pittsburgh VA’s Center for the Treatment of Addictive Diseases.

“We were there every day from 9 to 3,” he explained. “I think I liked group therapy the best. You got to see how other people ended up being in the position they’re in. It gave you some perspective. It made you feel like you weren’t so alone.”

Troy Polamalu

All that was 10 years ago. Today Doherty has his own apartment, a black cat named Troy Polamalu (after the former Pittsburgh Steelers’ strong safety), and a classic 1985 Crown Victoria he uses to get around in. Most importantly, he has his two daughters back in his life.

“I just tried to progress a little bit at a time, as best I could.”

“They turned out great,” he beamed. “I missed out on some of their birthdays and dance recitals when they were growing up, and I have no one to blame for that but me. But they turned out good. One just turned 19 and the other just turned 22.”

He added: “I feel lucky I was given a chance. That’s why the VA is so important to me. They gave me a chance, and I’m grateful to them. So now I’m trying to give back. That’s why I’ve spent the last 10 years volunteering here at the VA.”

Doherty said that 10 years ago the Pittsburgh VA had no formal clothing program, so he decided to start one.

“I know what it’s like to show up here with nothing,” he said. “I look at some of these Vets and I say to myself, ‘That was me.’ They don’t have decent clothes or shoes or a winter coat. Now, whatever item of clothing you need –socks, underwear, anything—we can get it for you. I can’t hold your hand once you leave here, but I can make sure you have proper clothes on your back. I reach out to the VFW, the Purple Heart organization, the American Legion, places like that. They give us all the clothes we need. ”

He continued: “Some of the homeless Vets I’ve given clothes to work here now. They’re VA employees. That gives me a good feeling.”

The Vietnam Vet, who will soon turn 65, said helping his fellow Veterans is what keeps him going.

“It’s what gets me up at 3 o’clock every morning,” he smiled. “I’m here every day handing out clothes. I’m here on holidays. I’m here on Christmas Eve.”

To learn more about VA’s effort to end Veteran homelessness, visit www.va.gov/homeless

Are you a Veteran battling substance abuse? Know a Veteran who is? Find out how the VA can help by visiting www.mentalhealth.va.gov/res-vatreatmentprograms.asp

 

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