INSIDER: The War Within
They are military veterans, most of them living lives in limbo, torn by war. They don’t have much. But they do have the Comfort House. This is Times staffer Jenny Swigoda’s story and photo essay.
In war, once you shoot somebody — that’s if you’re close enough to see them die — it’s something that you never forget.”
Wallace Presley still grapples with the horrors he encountered — and took part in — as a young soldier more than 40 years ago in Vietnam. Presley fought at the Battle of Hue, one of the bloodiest battles during the Tet Offensive in early 1968, when North Vietnamese forces undertook a wave of violent assaults on South Vietnamese villages.
It is an experience that has traveled with him throughout his life, and the memories of it often wake him at night.
“In a sense we’re some of the lucky ones,” Presley said while sitting on his bed at the Philadelphia Veterans Comfort House.
His living space is small — a private corner of the basement where Presley spends most of his time reading the Bible and occasionally looking through family photos, however painful a reflection the memories hold for him.
Presley enjoys his time alone. Crowds make him nervous. At times he needs to seclude himself, and he descends into his space while pulling down a POW flag to block the view inside. No windows. Presley feels safe here.
The Comfort House opened in 1994 as a sort of military Ronald McDonald House, in this case a place where veterans receiving cancer treatment at the nearby Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center can stay to alleviate uncomfortable and costly travel situations over the course of their treatment.
The non-profit home sits on a residential street in West Philadelphia. It can accommodate up to 15 servicemen or women and has a steady influx of patients and, these days, homeless veterans.
Presley came to the house in 2009 while receiving treatment at VAMC for prostate cancer. He links his cancer to exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during Vietnam, a causal relationship still considered controversial within military circles. While Presley was at VAMC, counselors recognized that he also suffered from “delayed stress syndrome,” most likely from his combat time in Vietnam.
“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t acknowledge the fact that I needed help,” said Presley.
For Wallace Presley and many other soldiers like him, help didn’t come until much later.
• • •
Frank Tramontano Jr. served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 military campaign when U.S. forces repelled Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Tramontano was a combat soldier, but he also worked on jet engine repairs. While he did see combat during his time in the Gulf War, his ultimate battle didn’t start until he returned home and began working as a car mechanic.
One day, while working on a car in an Allentown repair shop, Tramontano began seeing double. He had been experiencing painful headaches for years, which he attributed to the chemicals he was exposed to while servicing jet engines. After a visit to the emergency room, he was informed that his right eye was ascending into his skull. A CAT scan revealed a tumor behind the eye and cancer on the right side of his face.
“That’s when my nightmare began,” Tramontano said, retelling his story in the hushed, pause-filled manner of one who has been through a lot and thinks about it often.
Tramontano began treatment at VMAC in 2006, staying at the Comfort House to avoid unnecessary travel. After two surgeries, Tramontano’s right eye was removed, the cavity covered by a skin graft from his thigh. He no longer can drive and relies on a bike to get around.
Though his tenure at PVCH ended with the completion of his medical treatment, the house remains a big part of his life. Feeling a sense of gratitude and goodwill toward the place that helped him through a difficult time in his life, Tramontano makes the 90-minute bus ride to Philadelphia whenever he can to inspire other veterans to overcome their demons, and to volunteer his services performing computer maintenance at the Comfort House.
While volunteer work may be his official “mission,” Tramontano returns for the relationships, too.
“We have a camaraderie here,” he says. “We all served under the same flag.”
• • •
After returning from Vietnam in 1968, Wallace Presley tried to resume the life he had put on hold. He took a job at General Electric; he played basketball at local rec centers and hung out with old friends; he returned to a girlfriend he had planned to marry before the war. But extreme experiences can have unforeseen effects, and Presley returned from war a changed man.
“I was so angry about a lot of things,” said Presley.
He and his girlfriend soon fell apart. The years that followed were not easy. He fell in love with a woman and they eventually moved in together. She became pregnant and gave birth to twin boys — Malik and Marquis — and Presley worked hard to support his family.
Eventually, his emotional struggles put a strain on the relationship. After a few years, the couple split up.
Presley stayed in touch with his boys until their mother got married and moved to upstate Pennsylvania. Presley hasn’t heard from his children in over 11 years. And though his cancer treatment ended in 2010, Presley remains at the Comfort House for one reason.
He has nowhere else to go.
• • •
According to numbers from the Veterans Administration, nearly 20 percent of the nation’s approximate 2.3 to 3.5 million homeless population are veterans. In 2010, aware of such alarming stats and rarely having a full house of vets in treatment at VMAC, the Philadelphia Veterans Comfort House decided to also help the city’s homeless veterans.
“These are veterans that are wounded and left on the battlefield of life. And our job, as a stretcher-barer, is to go out there, pick them up and bring them back to the aid station,” says David Kamioner, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Veterans Comfort House.
• • •
Edward Bridges came to the house last Christmas. After a weekend of warm meals, hot showers and fresh clothes, he asked about staying longer so he could try to get his life back in order.
Kamioner agreed, but warned that it would not be a free ride. Echoing their days of service in the military, all of the men staying at the house are expected to work together to cook, clean, and keep the place operating smoothly.
Bridges was stationed in Wildflecken, Germany, for 26 months and returned to Fort Dix in 1976.
“It was like a big party,” Bridges said, smiling from ear to ear as he reflected on the friends he made during his service years.
He pulls out a photo album and points to images of men in uniform — and then to those same men in the clubs, surrounded by women and booze.
But having fun did not detract from the seriousness that Bridges applied to his duty. He was a boy then, in his early twenties, and he saw the Army as a place where he could become a man.
When Bridges returned to Philadelphia in 1977, after joining the Army Reserve, he took a job as a security guard and stayed with that work until 2009 when, while working security at a Center City retirement home, he was accused of breaking into a car. The accusation cost him his job.
After a 10-month legal battle, during which he proclaimed his innocence, Bridges was acquitted of the charges. He is happy to have his freedom back and his name cleared of a crime he did not commit, but the ordeal has had lasting effects. The arrest remains a stain on his record and prevents him from returning to the security work he knows so well.
• • •
The Philadelphia Veterans Comfort House does more than shelter, feed and clothe its homeless veterans. The main objective is to provide support for these men to regain control of their lives. As Kamioner puts it, the house is a “safety net,” not a “safety hammock.”
Classes and job training are arranged, access is provided to a computer, the Internet and telephone, and encouragement and support help the vets re-find their way in the world. The Comfort House also recently brought in a volunteer director of mental-health services, Hope Heffner. She primarily helps the homeless veterans prepare resumes and cover letters, as well as refine their interview techniques and general job-search skills.
“There’s a give and take . . . we want to support their mental health as best as possible,” Heffner said, “but there’s also a laundry list of things we need to get done with them in a very short amount of time to make sure they have stable housing and employment by the time they leave at six months.”
Now a man of 57, Bridges still struggles to move on from his military days. He maniacally does chores around the house as his departure date looms. Heffner says that men like Bridges are partly stuck in a period of their lives when they were given orders and carried them out.
“All of a sudden their whole identity . . . most of us, when we develop our identity, we have ourselves at home and then ourselves that we present at work,” Heffner said. “For the soldier, work and play are one. So then we send them out into the world and we’re asking them to separate again, and it’s very difficult to do so.”
Bridges found work at a nearby pizza shop, but he soon lost the job because he couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced environment. He recently reached the maximum six-month stay at the Comfort House. On July 5, he packed his bags and moved to another shelter.
“I just hope we don’t see him drunk on a park bench in a couple of weeks,” Kamioner sighed.
Although the house does all it can to help these veterans in a very brief period, it’s ultimately up to the individual to follow through when he leaves.
The economic climate hasn’t made things easy.
George Roache has followed a long and winding path of military service that is matched only by the arc of his employment history. Starting as an aircraft loadmaster in the Air Force Reserve to pay for his master’s studies at Columbia University, Roache was deployed to Bosnia in 1996 as a journalist for the Maryland National Guard’s public affairs unit.
When he returned to civilian life, Roache worked for IBM, reviewed documents for a large Manhattan law office, and wrote for the Daily Times in Maryland. In 2006 he was working for Wicomico County, Maryland, as a public information officer.
Following an election that brought a change in political administration, Roache’s position was eliminated and he found himself “overqualified” for most jobs on the market.
With no steady income, Roache took up residence on a friend’s couch for $20 a night. He also lowered his job expectations.
“I was willing to do physical labor. I was willing to start at the bottom of a company and work my way up,” he said.
Roache took what work he could find — stacking crates of frozen chickens at Perdue Farms, driving a taxi and ghostwriting a book for a family friend.
Earlier this year, Kamioner reached out to Roache through Facebook. The two had worked together at a homeless shelter in Maryland, and Kamioner recalled Roache’s work ethic and impressive resume and invited him to stay at the Comfort House. Shortly after, when an administrative assistant position opened there, Kamioner offered it to Roache. He gladly accepted, and holds the position to this day. He attributes part of his success in the job to the inherent “trustworthiness” of his salt-and-pepper hair and his eyeglasses.
Understandably, Roache considers the Philadelphia Veterans Comfort House a “godsend.”
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for anyone who sees it as an opportunity, who sees it as a platform for getting their life back together,” he said. ••
For information about the Philadelphia Veterans Comfort House, visit the Web site at http://www.vetscomforthouse.org/