Note: Following is a glimpse into the life of Samuel “Shorty” Legasca, a longtime Tenderloin resident, community volunteer, activist and a disabled Vietnam Veteran. Shorty died last week at his home at the Raman Hotel on Howard Street, which is holding a memorial service for him on May 24 at 3pm. This story is based on two interviews the author did with Shorty in 2008.
The last time I had a long visit with Shorty he was looking gaunt with just a few wisps of gray hair and deep lines in his face. We did community organizing together from 2001 to 2007 in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. We met in his room a couple of times over a one month period. The first time, I remember he sat bent slightly forward on his bed and stroked the back of the large mottled gray cat that was spread indolently across his rumpled sheets. "What's his name?" Shorty echoed my question with a smile that exposed the many gaps where his teeth used to be. After a moment, he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "Oh, I don't know... sometimes I call him ‘my son.’” The cat purred noisily and stretched back as Shorty stroked his stomach. "What's important is that he is my number one, and I still have him with me." His voice quivered with emotion as he said this. Shorty’s smile and upbeat demeanor were present as always, but the years had taken their toll. A veteran of the Vietnam war, Shorty was disabled from combat wounds and had a variety of other health ailments brought on by decades of hard living marked by episodes of homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse. His poor health was compounded by the fact that, at the time of our interview, he was almost sixty-five years old. "Lately, the worst thing is my stomach" he told me with a grimace, "Its ulcers, and they are very painful." Despite these problems, Shorty was in high spirits because he felt that recently his luck had changed.
"I moved into this new place about six months ago," Shorty told me. "Yeah, it's small," he chuckled and gestured around him, and indeed the space was no more than thirteen feet by twelve feet and crowded with his belongings, "but it does feel like home." After a moment he continued, "they are nice people here... The other tenants are around my age and friendly. Even the staff treats me with respect."
This last statement made Shorty pause and smile warily, and when I asked him why, he explained quietly that respect was not something you could even hope for in the kinds of places he lived before. For decades Shorty lived down on his luck; occasionally homeless on the streets or in shelters, but mostly in transient hotels in the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s “Skid Row.” Conditions were appalling, but these places were all he could afford on his meager veterans disability check. When I visited him in 2008 he was getting around $900 per month; in the decades before, it was far less and it was often all he had to cover rent, food, clothes, transportation and any out-of-pocket medical expenses. In San Francisco, a city with a high a cost of living, where Shorty had lived since his father relocated his family here in 1947, he could barely scrape by.
Recently Shorty had moved into this new room in the Raman, a seniors-only supportive housing project leased and subsidized by the city of San Francisco and run by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. The room he and his cat inhabited was small and cramped; the bed took up almost half of the floor space. For Shorty, though, this modest space had been one of his few lucky breaks.
Shorty was, as his nickname indicated, a man of diminutive stature. At just five feet tall, his slight stoop and lean frame would have made him appear almost a shadow in his dark room were it not for his alert engaging eyes. These features helped make Shorty who he became in life; they helped make him a feisty and determined youth who volunteered for the army during wartime and helped select him for shadowy and dangerous "tunnel rat" duty once he was in Vietnam.
Shorty left for Vietnam a bold young man in search of adventure, brash, he admitted but also deeply motivated to serve his country and protect his family and way of life. "My father was an immigrant from the Philippines; he had residency here, but he never felt very secure... he raised us with a great deal of patriotism. He never even taught us Tagalog. He wanted us to be Americans"
"When I joined up I was real cocky," Shorty told me. "Then, one time, I remember my CO looked at me and said ‘buddy, we have a job picked out just for you.’ Thinking about it now, I wish I had never even thought of joining up."
The North-Vietnamese army had built elaborate networks of tunnels throughout the south from which to stage operations. The tunnels could reach as deep as 60 feet underground with numerous dead-ends, booby traps and hidden enemy soldiers. Shorty was trained to crawl into the tunnels with nothing but a pistol and his senses, to try to capture, kill, or push the Vietnamese soldiers out the other side. "Sometimes they had lighting systems, but a lot of times it was pitch dark and I had to rely on my sense of smell and hearing.” "My CO used to tell us over and over to never wear any cologne or anything that smelled strong. It would be a dead give-away."
Shorty was wounded twice during combat. Once, during a firefight, he was hit in the shoulder by a bullet. Another time he stepped on an anti-personnel mine that exploded a moment late, allowing him to escape death but receive serious wounds to his lower body. Both times he returned to battle after rehabilitation. Perhaps his most serious wounds, however, came much later. After returning from war he suffered from severe emotional depression. He had fits of paranoia, had difficulty sleeping, and would often awaken during horrific nightmares.
"I was really psyched out," Shorty quietly told me. "I would wake up sweating so bad. Cold, cold sweats, and nightmares." Like roughly thirty percent of his fellow Vietnam veterans, Shorty had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a severe anxiety disorder and ongoing emotional reaction resulting from the psychological trauma of war. Yet, like many of his fellow veterans, Shorty didn’t receive treatment for these psychological and social issues. Instead he tried to tough it out.
This fate is not uncommon according to John Baskerville, director of health and social services at Swords to Plowshares, a veterans assistance group based in San Francisco. Many of Mr. Baskerville’s clients are homeless and formerly homeless aging veterans like Shorty. "Tremendous numbers of veterans from Vietnam have suffered in silence," said Mr. Baskerville. “The attitude that historically pervaded was ‘let's suck it up.’ There was no understanding that when you went to war you came back changed.” “Many, many WWII, Korea, and Vietnam vets have never even talked much about their experiences.”
There is a new tide of disabled veterans coming home in waves from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Baskerville is acutely concerned that our society will fail these veterans like it failed Shorty and so many others of generations past. To prevent a future wave of homeless vets from hitting the streets, Mr. Baskerville says that our government must do more this time.
Shorty came home from his second tour in Vietnam in 1973. He moved back to San Francisco’s Mission District, where he grew up, but he had a hard time readjusting. "It seemed like a different country to me than when I left," he said, with an uneasy smile, "I had to be reconditioned."
On my second visit to interview Shorty a month after the first, we sat and talked in the hallway outside his room. Shorty liked to squat by the door because he could chat with his neighbors as they came and went and also keep an eye on his beloved cat. The management was also finishing up a bedbug treatment to rid his room of an infestation brought on by a former tenant in the hallway. Shorty thought I might want to keep my distance. “Those bedbugs were awful, but they don't mess with my cat though. Don't like cat blood" he said with a cackle.
In the early years after his return from Vietnam, Shorty worked odd jobs including some construction. But he had trouble keeping anything going for very long and would often get depressed for extended periods of time. Only much later did he learn that he was struggling with PTSD.
Then, in the midst of this uncertain time, his life was rocked by tragedy. His wife died suddenly and unexpectedly. "She had some kind of heart trouble, but she really kept her illness to herself. She'd been going to the doctor about it but didn't tell me or her family."
Shorty fell into drug and alcohol abuse, and served time for a series of "small time offenses and parole violations" in a variety of jails from San Quentin to Corocoran. "Thinking about when I was young, I scare myself. I was a rough breed.” Shorty said, reminiscing about his life. “I probably deserved to die for all that stuff. But I guess God didn't want me to die.”
"For years I couldn't get my wife out of my mind and I didn't want to have anything to do with women.” Eventually though, Shorty picked himself back up and got married a second time. Again tragedy struck when after just a few years of marriage his second wife was hit and killed by a car.
We sat on the green triangle patterned carpet in the hallway outside Shorty's room as he struggled to describe how he was devastated by this third major trauma. "Was that my fault, I was asking myself?" As he remembered those dark times in his life, tears welled up in his eyes. "I was blaming myself. Her family and my family were trying to convince me that it was not my fault."
A vet on Skid Row
Shorty fell deeper into drug and alcohol addiction. He ended up at the Apollo hotel in the Mission district, then on the streets and then in various SRO hotels in the Tenderloin. Eventually he settled at the Drake on lower Eddy street
"At the Drake, the manager only cared about one thing: money," Shorty told me. He described a building full of drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes, the mentally ill and transients. Shorty too counted drug addiction and alcoholism among the demons he battled during that time. Living conditions were terrible. There was often broken plumbing, broken doors, and broken windows. The electrical circuits were always going out and the place was filthy. "I lived on the third floor,” said Shorty, “There was no elevator and we had to carry garbage down to the basement where it would just build up.” At the Drake and surrounding neighborhood, there were often violent fights and police raids. Once Shorty saw a man die after getting stabbed in the hallway in front of his room.
Shorty lived for decades as one of the many veterans who call the hotels in San Francisco's “Skid Row” their home. Usually, however, he had a roof over his head and thus can be counted one of the lucky ones.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that there are nearly 200,000 veterans who are currently homeless across the United States. Another 200,000 are marginally housed and end up homeless at some point during the year. Overall the VA estimates that up to a third of the adult homeless population in the US are veterans. These homeless vets suffer from a variety of ailments; seventy percent have alcohol or other drug abuse problems and nearly half suffer from mental illness.
I asked Mr. Baskerville, of Swords to Plowshares, what he thought about this 200,000 homeless vets statistic. He answered with the skepticism that arises from a deep experience working with this marginalized population and their forgotten plight. "In my experience, any number that the government says, you should double it."
Nobody knows for sure how many vets live in hotel rooms like those that Shorty used to inhabit in the Tenderloin and other cities across the country. In San Francisco there are tens of thousands of people living in residential hotels, though, and a high percentage are thought to be vets. The buildings are designated Single Room Occupancy (SRO), because each tenant has only one room, typically ten feet by twelve feet. Bathrooms are down the hallway and are shared by many other tenants and their visitors. Hotels are often dilapidated and can go years without needed repairs.
Shorty found an outlet from these bleak surroundings through his love of animals. "I rescued a lot of cats over the years. I don't know how many really. Maybe twelve or fifteen living with me at one time. I found a few strays on the streets, but mostly they were abandoned in the rooms after addicts would disappear to who knows where."
He looked distractedly toward the window that opened on a dark light-well, then continued, "Animal control came and took them, though. All of them but this one. They let me keep him as a companion animal."
Shorty's compassion for animals ran so deep that once he even “rescued" a live chicken from a vendor in Chinatown who planned to sell it to someone who would make a meal out of it. He, the chicken and the dozen or so cats shared his ten foot by twelve foot room harmoniously until the landlord discovered them and called animal control while swearing that he would throw Shorty out on the street.
Recovery and community service
After more than two decades slipping in and out of addiction, Shorty told me that gradually and not without some regressions, he began to stabilize himself. As he did so, he felt compelled to help others around him who were struggling.
He became a volunteer with Food Runners bringing donated meals to the hungry. “We would get leftover food from banquets and restaurants and deliver it for free to folks around town.” "We helped people... and also got some good hot meals" he said with a toothy smile, "steak, spare ribs, bbq ribs... yep."
Shorty also became a tenant representative with the SRO Collaborative, where he and I first met. He worked to organize his community and advocate for better living conditions. He held tenant meetings in his building for many years. He became a regular face at City Hall demanding better building and health code enforcement and calling for more affordable housing.
When I interviewed Shorty, he had been in his new home for about six months. The Raman is an old residential hotel that has been renovated and is leased by the city to provide supportive housing to seniors. It is located just off of 6th Street, and as we walked out to get some lunch at a Chinese restaurant that Shorty liked, he gave me a tour. There are hardwood floors, common kitchens, and even a roof deck for tenants to enjoy the sun. "I like it here" Shorty said as we made our way slowly down the hallway. "Everyone knows me." As if on cue, we passed an elderly man with a walker who had an overloaded plastic bag hanging from the side bar with packaged drinks and a bag of vegetables protruding out. He greeted Shorty warmly and told him that the social worker downstairs was giving out free groceries.
A new wave of homeless vets?
In the past eleven years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 2.5 million American armed service members were deployed to war zones. A study by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes of the Milken Institute, initially published in 2006 and updated since then, found that of the first million US troop to serve in the most recent Iraq war, more than half did two or three tours of duty. The study went on to point out that "a sobering 40 percent of the soldiers who served during the four-week-long Gulf War in 1991... are suffering from some form of disability." While that conflict was a relatively smooth ride for American soldiers, the current one has been far more treacherous.
Following up their initial study the authors released a book in 2008 titled "The Three Trillion Dollar War" in which they took a closer look at the coming wave of disabled vets. (More recently they updated this cost estimate to $4-$6 trillion.) "We are witnessing an unprecedented human cost among the veterans who return from Iraq and Afghanistan" they say. Their studies reveal that, as of this year, nearly 900,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated by VA for medical conditions, and almost 800,000 of them have filed disability claims. According to Blimes, “More than 253,000 troops have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and, in many cases, concurrent with a PTSD diagnosis and complicating treatment and recovery.” The VA has already diagnosed more than 250,000 veterans of these recent wars with PTSD. If projected rates hold steady that number could ultimately rise to more than 750,000. The authors estimate that benefits for disabled veterans of these ongoing conflicts will ultimately exceed $800 billion dollars. These costs will be borne far into the future.
In the early years of the Iraq invasion it was immediately apparent to some that the Veterans Administration was already cutting corners. A class action lawsuit filed in a San Francisco federal court against the VA in 2007 claimed that many veterans were facing long delays for medical treatment, extraordinarily long claims processing times and improper disability compensation. The group Veterans for Common Sense, which was a co-plaintiff in the case, found that the current wars are resulting in a uniquely high level of vets with PTSD. "A much higher percentage of these veterans suffer with PTSD than veterans of any previous war, due to the multiple tours many are serving, the unrelenting vigilance required by the circumstances, the greater prevalence of brain injuries caused by the types of weaponry in use, among other reasons." The case was ultimately rejected on appeal in January of this year by the US Supreme Court. The federal courts found that “although the VA might not be meeting all the needs of the nation’s veterans,” “ultimately the power to remedy this crisis lies with other branches of government, including congress.”
Caring for these wounded and the dependents of those killed in action will be a very costly endeavor. These are costs that will be paid by Americans for generations to come. As Stiglitz notes, peak cost for caring for WWII veterans did not come until 1993, nearly 50 years after the end of that conflict. Stiglitz and Blimes suggested that the current administration should create a trust fund and "put it in a lockbox" so that these disabled vets don't have to compete with future programs to get the payments they need.
What is clear from Shorty's experience is that even if these benefits are paid in full at the levels of the past, as "The Three Trillion Dollar War" assumes in its cost estimates, these disability programs will still allow many disabled vets to slip through the cracks.
John Baskerville, of Swords to Plowshares, has seen this happen far too often. “What we are doing now is dealing with the wreckage of the past,” he told me when we talked some weeks after I last interviewed Shorty., “Often all that can be done for these people is to recognize their sacrifices and help them live out their remaining years with dignity.”
Hard Luck is Behind Him
After our lunch, Shorty and I departed the sparse Chinese restaurant and made our way back toward his new home. From there it was just a few blocks to Lower Eddy Street and the Drake Hotel. On the sun splashed sidewalk, a row broke out between an overweight woman in her fifties and a younger person pushing a bike. The woman was shoeless and yelled with a faraway look in her eyes. Her speech was vitriolic and senseless, muddled by drugs or alcohol. It was still Sixth Street, a narrow extension of the rough-and-tumble Tenderloin that reaches down between the gleaming towers of the SOMA Grand and the Hotel Intercontinental. Back inside the Raman though, Shorty was in a home that to him felt worlds away from the place he spent his darkest decades.