COLUMBUS, Ohio –
Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part series.
A chance encounter between a homeless Marine Corps Purple Heart recipient and a Defense Logistics Agency Land and Maritime associate on a regular grocery store run gave birth to a grassroots effort to make a difference and changed the course of two lives in the process.
On July 4, Nicole Banks, a contracting supervisor with DLA Land and Maritime based in Whitehall, Ohio, saw a man in the parking lot of her local grocery store sitting in the shade of some trees, reading and trying to stay cool. A silver 1996 Pontiac parked a few feet away held his worldly possessions. The temperature that sweltering morning pushed into the low 90s, with no clouds in sight.
Concerned that he might need help, the former Marine and married mother of two walked over to his car, with her 11-year-old son Rohan in tow. When Banks got closer, she spotted the Purple Heart emblem on his license plate. Feeling moved to help him, she offered cash at first. When he politely declined, Banks decided to act. Looking again at the license plate that marked him as a combat wounded veteran, she thanked him for his sacrifices and service to the nation. As their conversation unfolded, the pair soon realized each had served in the Marine Corps and “that’s when the dam broke,” she recalled.
That conversation lasted five hours, and by the end Banks was determined to help get him off the street.
Jim Stewart grew up in Mansfield, Ohio. He declined to give his specific age, but appears to be in his mid-70s. His physical presence belies his pre-Baby Boomer status. Bodybuilder-fit and clean-shaven, Stewart keeps his white hair trimmed short around a tanned face etched with the passage of time. He’s quick with a smile and a self-deprecating chuckle. Combined with the neat, white eyebrows hovering above gunmetal blue eyes, he gives one the impression of an ex-military St. Nick: leaner and less naïve than children’s stories depict.
Until recently, the homeless veteran had been living out of his car for years, maintaining his basic necessities – food, water and a hot shower at a local gym – by carefully budgeting his social security check each month. It wasn’t enough to put a roof over his head, but it did keep Stewart from panhandling.
“Jim told me that if I was determined to help him, then he would ask for help with three things: a folding beach chair that would lay flat so he could sleep outside in the shade, someone to look at the broken air conditioner in his car, and an attorney to help him file a Veterans Affairs claim,” Banks said.
In the initial days, Banks enlisted the help of several friends to see what could be done about Stewart’s situation. Within two weeks, a network of friends, friends of friends, and complete strangers raised nearly $10,000, a congressional staffer looked into Stewart’s VA claim, a friend temporarily fixed his air conditioner and Stewart had a new chair. Two weeks after that, Banks delivered Stewart a newer car with a working air conditioner. And six weeks from the day she met Stewart, he was walking into his new VA-subsidized apartment – his first home in nearly five years.
Life is precarious. We work to meet our basic needs – shelter, food and water. Some of us are lucky enough to earn a living that provides room for vacations, savings and retirement. But regardless of our financial successes or failures, one thing is common for us all: We’re all one job loss, one illness or one accident away from losing it all. Only one moment away from having the security of our lives ripped away.
For Stewart, that moment came five years ago in the form of a management change at his place of employment. A change made every day in thousands of places for hundreds of thousands of people – but for Stewart, who averaged $500 a week before the change – it meant loss of the income he depended upon to survive. With less hours and money coming in, he soon fell behind on rent and was evicted from his apartment. He did odd jobs, bouncing between places before ultimately ending up on the street less than a year later. Stewart doesn’t depend much on a calendar these days, but he recalls clearly that it was the year of Ohio’s Polar Vortex, when temperatures nationwide dipped to historic lows.
“It was brutal,” Stewart said, chuckling at the experience.
People underestimate how difficult it can be to get off the streets once you’re homeless, Banks said.
On a recent trip to Franklin County Services Commission, she learned it would actually hurt Stewart’s situation if she helped him find employment. It would affect his eligibility for a low-income pension he receives from the VA for his Purple Heart. Further, Stewart’s social security is reduced by the amount of his VA pension so his combined monthly income is not enough to cover basic necessities and put a roof over his head at the same time.
“What I learned at the services commission was very discouraging,” she explained. “When Jim became homeless, he didn’t have a plan. He was just trying to survive day by day. I learned that it’s not easy to get out of that situation once you’re in it.”
More than 40,000 veterans were homeless in the United States in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care Program. Sixty-two percent of veterans resided in emergency shelters or transitional housing, and the remaining 38 percent lived on the street.
As the nation grapples with solutions for homeless veterans, Stewart said he recognizes that his situation is not unique. What draws people to his story, however, is not so much how he came to be living on the street, but what he did before. In 1965, Stewart was prepared to give his life for his country, and if not for the poor marksmanship of an anonymous gunman, he would have.
Stewart enlisted in the Marine Corps in the early 1960s. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and later served in Washington D.C. as part of the Presidential Honor Guard. His military record includes a month in Santo Domingo after a coup thrust the Dominican Republic into civil war and threatened U.S. civilian lives.
With 16 months left in his service contract, the Marine Corps infantryman was sent to Vietnam.
Stewart arrived at Chu Lai, a U.S. Marine Corps air base in Vietnam, in mid-1965. He spent the following months on the move, covering areas between the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Vietnam to Cam Lo – from the fields to the mountains.
On a hot, bright afternoon three months after arriving in country, Stewart’s infantry unit took direct fire while on a security mission for a Navy construction battalion – commonly known as Seabees. The team was on a road running along a large rice paddy, with only shallow ditches on either side to offer cover from the barrage of gunfire.
“If it had been a well-planned ambush, we’d all be dead – no doubt about it,” Stewart stated.
As it was, Stewart and the two Marines next to him were shot. Each took a bullet to the left leg as the gunman sprayed the area with rapid fire from an AK-47.
“When the bullet hit, I felt my whole body come off the ground,” he recalled. “There was no pain at first, just that initial shock.”
Sunlight prevented the Marines from pinpointing exactly where the bullets were coming from, though a jungle on the far side of the irrigated field seemed the likely location. Huddling in the ditch, they returned fire.
Stewart said it soon became apparent there was only one person shooting, and it wasn’t with a sniper’s precision.
“You could tell by the way the rounds came in what he was doing,” he recalled, making a slow, sweeping gesture with his left arm to describe the approximate trajectory of the gunman’s weapon as it swept unevenly across the unit’s location. “We didn’t see him, so we just started shooting fire over there and he quit.”
With the brief firefight over, the team set to evaluating and evacuating their wounded. Stewart was flown to a hospital in Japan for treatment. He returned to Vietnam a month later to complete his deployment, and later received the Purple Heart for his service to the nation.
Today, he’s quick to call his injury a “minor wound” – after all, he says, many others lost much more than him. Unstated is the knowledge that a monument in Washington D.C. is dedicated to all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Truthfully, he said the toughest part of his experience in Vietnam was going home. The ease of transportation in and out of the country compared to previous wars meant that Soldiers returned to the U.S. faster than ever before – and many with emotional baggage.
“In World War II and Korea, it might take you weeks to get home,” Stewart explained. “So everyone would sit around, sharing war experiences, and you’d get a lot of stuff worked out that way before you went home. In Vietnam, you’d find out your time’s up and have a chopper pick you up out of the field that same day. Three days later you’re back in the United States. And you don’t fit. You’re different.”
Stewart added it took him over a year to adjust and stop carrying a pistol with him everywhere he went.
Following Vietnam, Stewart carried on with his life. Married a few times, divorced a few times too. He has family in northern Ohio but has never told them the truth of his situation.
Money’s tight and they’re not in a position to help me, Stewart disclosed.
A man who once crossed Vietnam’s fields and mountains on foot, now uses those skills to survive homelessness in an Ohio town.
Next Up: A homeless Marine veteran gains a home and the Starfish Assignment is born.