06 February 2016


I've been writing quite a bit about the VA, and most of what I've been saying is negative. It's deserved, but that's not everything that's going on in my life. There are some good, positive things. (Perhaps it's important that the good and positive things don't have anything to do with the VA.)

At work over the past couple of weeks, the team of software developers I'm on more than doubled in size. We maintain and build on a set of internal applications-- things like the employee schedule, customer service coaching utility, a way for employees (we're all students) to submit availability every semester since everyone's class schedule changes every few months. Stuff you'd expect to find at an IT help desk, but it's custom applications with some specific things that we need here to make everything work. 

I'm working on a chunk of middleware that takes employee schedules from our employee scheduling software and makes them into RFC 5545 compliant schedule data that can be imported by any calendar software. The schedule software we have was written by a student who has since graduated; so part of what I've been doing has been figuring out what he was thinking when he put it together. Another part has been getting the data for the schedule out, and converting it to the right format. The last part has been the tricky part (what's that saying about the last 20% of a software project taking 80% of the time and effort?). 

Our schedule software allows employees to post shifts, meaning they want to have off during those particular times. Once a shift is posted, any other employee can pick it up, which adds it to the picker's schedule and removes it from the poster's schedule. If no one picks the shift up, the poster is still responsible for it. It's all web based, and it's a good system-- except that it was never meant to export schedule data. As it is now, every semester each of us has to manually enter our work hours into whatever calendar we use. My project will replace having to do that, with just adding a subscription by URL to whatever calendar software that mirrors the main schedule. Exporting the data is fairly easy. Accounting for dropped and picked up shifts has turned out not to be that easy, but it is challenging and engaging and I'm enjoying working on it.

There's enough work to do, and enough of the initial team getting ready to graduate or move on, that we added four additional student employees. We put together a standard set of interview questions, came up with a booklet of onboarding information about things like how we use git, what tools we use, and how to quickly get started. And we conducted all of the interviews and decided who would actually be hired. Next we get to train them, mentor them, and get them into our workflow and codebase. It's been interesting-- I've certainly been an interviewee enough times in my life, but I've never been an interviewer. This past week I interviewed four applicants and I was in on the discussion that decided who was hired, and who was not.

We're slowly (because we're still learning) adopting agile software development practices, both with the help of one of the full time staff developers from another team and from our own research. My team is a little bit different, since we all have wonky schedules and since we're all students at the same time-- so we're taking things we can apply, trying them out, modifying them, sometimes discarding them. That our managers let us handle interviewing new developers, and let us manage our own workflow and priorities, means a lot. They keep an eye on us, certainly, but as interns we do a lot of our own thinking.

The team didn't exist this time last year. That we've more than doubled in size and the amount of things we're responsible for, at the same time as the budget ax has fallen everywhere around us, says a lot. I know a bunch of other students who either are now, or have recently been interns-- it's not true in every case, but compared to a lot of other places to work, we're doing some really amazing things for being part time student employees. I'm proud of what I (and we) do.

PTSD affects me at work, just as it does in class. I need accommodations, mainly a quiet place to work that's not the call center floor. Some days I can concentrate better than I can on other days. I work nights because it's quieter around here at night. Sometimes I wear earplugs if there's still too much noise. Sometimes I need to get up and go for a walk, or stand outside and watch cars go by for a little while. I get far more done if I don't have a set time to go home-- my shift technically ends at 2300, but I'm usually here later than that especially if I'm dialed in and getting things done. If I'm on a day when I'm not concentrating as well as I'd like, I do tasks that don't require being completely dialed in. I adjust. 

Last year, before we had a software development team where I work, I was looking for an internship where I'd be able to test the waters and see how I'd manage PTSD while getting paid to code. I worried that I it might not work at all, and then what? I'm still learning to deal with it. My current employer is really very flexible and accommodating, which helps a great deal. A year ago, I knew that accommodations could be made, but I had no idea what to ask for-- now I at least have some idea. This is important because I'm open about the fact that I suffer from/have PTSD and that it's a disability. I don't tap people on the shoulder and say "Hey! I have PTSD!", but I'm at least a little bit more comfortable now saying that I have a disability that I need accommodations for. I know I can at least ask. If a potential employer can't or won't deal with that, then it's probably not the right place for me to work.

There's a lot that I still have to work out-- I'm definitely moving to California but I haven't figured out exactly how I'm going to get me and my stuff from here to there. I'm going to have to take a break from school, because I'll be an out of state student if I start again as soon as I get to Cali, and there are restrictions on majors. Everyone wants to be a CS major again, so the GPA requirements are fairly high, maybe even too high. If it means I have to wait a year to be a California resident, and I have to be a math or philosophy major to finish a degree, I'm all right with that. As it's always been with me and college, whatever it takes.

I don't give up.

Yet another summit

There was a national summit this week, where the VA said loudly and often that the suicide rate among veterans is much too high and something Needs To Be Done. They want to have more veterans participate in the VA health care system, so when things go wrong maybe the signs can be spotted earlier. Spotting the signs, or symptoms, that vets are depressed and on the path early is a good thing-- and it's hard to say anything but "yeah, that's a good thing" in response. The problem is that it is very easy to fall through the cracks of the VA health care system, so just being in the system isn't enough. The system has to be one that works, and equally important, it has to be one that we as veterans trust.

Things go wrong in the military, early, often, and sometimes badly. When my unit got orders to deploy to the Desert, there was a several inches thick binder that made up our deployment plan. There's always a plan. During peacetime, you make a plan for what happens when wartime arrives. Then, when wartime arrives, you realize that the plan you made up then bears little resemblance to what you need to do now. After a while, once you realize that that's how it works, you rely on adaptability and quick thinking. It's not enough to just know your job, you have to know how to learn to do your job a little bit differently when the need arises. Everyone shifts and adapts. We all do our own job the best we can, even if it's in the middle of a shitstorm, and that's how we accomplish the mission. If nothing has gone wrong today, that means that something most certainly is either about to go wrong or is starting to go wrong and no one knows what it is yet.

My point is that as vets, we're used to things being fucked up. Where do you think SNAFU (situation normal, all fucked up) came from?

I fight depression, anxiety, and PTSD every day. It's always there. Some days I do a good job of dealing with it, and I get a lot done. Some days I struggle, and accomplish maybe a little (or a lot) less. PTSD symptoms have at various times really messed up my life. In finding ways to cope, I rely heavily on things I learned in the military, including a lot of things that I didn't understand when I was on active duty nearly as well as I do know. Lately, since everything that happened with being homeless and the lack of support I got with that, I've become much more self reliant. I don't trust as many people and institutions as I used to, the VA being at the top of the list.

Trust and mistrust are both earned, not given. Like freedom, they are not free.

I was put back on the street after being in transitional housing, and the VA not only wasn't willing to help but told me that I was a freeloader, "after nothing but free meals and a free bed". Never mind that I was working the entire time, or that I'd re-enrolled in college, or that I was one of the few vets in the program that were actually clean and sober.  I have my own apartment now, that I found on my own; later this summer I'll have had my own place again for two years. No one has ever called from the VA and checked on how I'm doing. Once you leave a VA homeless veterans program, they forget about you.

Last year, I was in a drop-in group for veterans who have been through prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD. I stopped attending when the schedule changed, and they shortened the sessions to 30 minutes, and put a limit of six session in six months on attending the group. Mind you, the highest number of vets that attended any session that I attended was four; and the group was run by a succession of interns. At least once the group was cancelled while I was sitting in the waiting area, waiting for it to start. Talking to other veterans helped, and that's why I went... the interns were just random people.

I don't have a psychiatrist at  the VA anymore. I have a pharmacist who is supposedly trained and certified to prescribe psych meds. Two appointments ago she cancelled and no one called me, so I went in anyway and fussed until I got to talk to someone whose name I didn't get and wouldn't remember anyway. The appointment was rescheduled, and I missed it (it was a morning appointment, and I work nights). I never heard anything more after that. The last time I refilled my psych meds prescriptions by phone I had to request renewals, and someone did them but I don't know who. I've stopped taking my psych meds-- all of them. When I don't refill them I doubt anyone will notice or care.

I've needed to make a primary care appointment for a while now. With everything that's happened, the VA primary care clinic is the last place I want to go, but I need to suck it up and make the appointment. When I go they'll first read my name, then a set of standard questions, from a computer screen. I'll talk to a nurse, and maybe an NP or a PA, but not to an actual doctor. They'll ask how my meds are working and I'll tell them that the meds they gave me that made me throw up still make me throw up and so I'm not taking them. They'll give me similar pills again anyway. I won't remember their names and they won't remember mine.

If I really make a fuss, I'll probably be able to get referred back into mental health for an appointment, but honestly they don't have any new therapy to offer that I haven't already been through. I'll get assigned to another intern whose name I won't bother learning, and the process will repeat. Except that it won't, because I'm not going down the same road that led to me being homeless, on the street, and out of school the last time.

My life is far from perfect, and the future is made up of a thick fog of question marks. I'm trying to make it in tech, where being older and having a disability like PTSD aren't listed in the "ways to make it big in tech" articles.

I'm clean and sober, and stubborn enough that I keep trying even when things go wrong and even when I fail. Exactly why I'm able to be clean and sober I don't know. Maybe I'm just awesome? I really don't know. Maybe I'm a little bit lucky and more than a little bit stubborn? Probably. I'm lucky that I have a skill or two-- I can tell computer what to do, and they listen (usually). Not all veterans have a skill or resources that matter in civilian life. Not all veterans manage to stay clean and sober.

Organizations like the VFW and American Legion that run bars that offer support by selling cheap booze don't help us either.

I once spoke at a meeting of a campus organization for suicide survivors and supporters. These were college kids who had either attempted suicide or come very close, and were still here. Many of the reasons they talked about, the situations they were in, were things like getting two C's in a semester or failing a class in college when in high school they'd been A students. I respected (and I still respect) these students because in their worlds, these were the worst things that they could imagine happening, and they'd actually happened.

This was before I became homeless.

After becoming homeless the first time, and two more times after that, and having the VA tell me how there was nothing they could do to help, I feel I'd have been damn well justified in making an attempt on my own life. Being evicted from transitional housing right before final exams killed my grades that semester and put me in debt. If ever there was a time to do it, that would have been it.  With all I've been through, I'd certainly be justified in having made an attempt, but I haven't even considered it.

A few months after finding my own apartment, my person at the Vet Center proclaimed me fine. She said I'd had enough visits and that since I was actually showing up I was doing all right and didn't need to come in for more. I haven't heard from the Vet Center since around this time last year. Yet I can't walk down the street without thinking that the car that's parked on the curb with someone sitting in it, motor running, might blow up any second. I can't form close relationships with other people because I don't trust anyone. I keep my phone silenced, do not disturb feature on, all the time. I used to be Mr. Happy Go Lucky, but now some days if you bump into me on the sidewalk on a bad day I'm going to lower my shoulder and stand my ground. When I fly, I look out the window occasionally to see if we've picked up a fighter escort.

I am alive and kicking, but I struggle every day. On the worst days I wonder when my luck and energy will run out.

In the military, in the Desert, things went haywire all the damn time. (I've read dissertations written by service academy cadets and Air War College officers that listed everything that went wrong during the Persian Gulf War and the reasons why things went wrong.) There were a lot of just plain fuckups, my unit included. There were times I know I fucked things up. I also know that when things went wrong, and it sometimes took several of us to fix whatever one of us had done wrong, we all pulled together and fixed whatever needed to be unfucked and fixed. I won't say we were always happy about it, and I can't say we never grumbled as we were doing the work. But when shit went wrong, shit got fixed.

It is a fine thing to have a national summit to talk about what needs to change to reduce the number of veterans who reach the point that they see suicide as the only remaining answer. It looks good on the news and the website. It was also a fine thing to say that homelessness among veterans will end by a certain calendar date. Fine things won't change anything though, not as long as the preferred method of treatment for PTSD is throwing different cocktails of pills at us until we stop complaining. Things won't change as long as support groups are limited to the only times that interns (whose names we don't even bother learning) have available.

A secure message from the VA, from a counselor or therapist or someone that can actually help, simply saying that we haven't heard from you in a while and want to know if you're all right would go a long way towards helping build respect and trust. One of the interns I saw last year said she'd never received an account to use MyHealtheVet. Know why? That's one of the ways she knew she could get around communications between us being documented. She "didn't use" the normal appointment system either-- again, a way to make sure her ass was covered.

(Side note: I read the VA OIG reports. I've learned a lot from them.)

How about a text from someone at the VA whose name and number we actually know, just letting us know you're there to help if we need it?

How about meaningful follow-up, when we miss appointments or stop therapy altogether, instead of just writing us off. Sending a form letter that says we missed an appointment and you're documenting it just to cover your ass? Doesn't help. We don't show up? Ask us why, and really care why.

Don't declare war on veteran suicide, if you're going to fight the same way you did when you declared war on veterans sleeping on the street.

And, one more thing: it should be an immediate firing offense for any VA employee, from the Secretary on down, to ever utter the words "yeah well that's just the VA". If that's how you feel, you need to start fixing things or GTFO.

29 January 2016

Skittles and the VA

I keep a folder of research papers, articles, blog posts, and other stuff titled 'PTSD Files'. It's an extension of a three-ring binder that I first started accumulating things in right around the time I was first diagnosed with PTSD. I highlight, I annotate, I underline, I write in the margins-- both on the paper pages and in the pdf files that live on disk. When things get rough, I read through the pages and look at the notes I've left myself. When things work I make notes that say so. When things don't work I try to record that too. It's not really a diary (this blog serves that purpose); I only loosely keep track of bibliographic information, so it's not an organized collection of research sources either. Perhaps informal personal library is the best description-- and the description is important because I want to point out that it's not the kind of thing that you'd put together if you were doing actual research. It's a collection of stuff.

The interesting thing about my PTSD files, as I leaf and page through it all, is that some patterns have emerged over time. (There's no scientific method behind the scenes here. So standard disclaimer, what I'm going to say next is my opinion as a patient. I'm not a mental health professional, but I've met a lot of them.)

The following are the types of PTSD therapy I've been involved in at the VA:

  • Cognitive processing therapy
  • Mindfulness therapy
  • Behavioral Activation therapy
  • Prolonged Exposure therapy
  • Couples therapy (when I actually had a SO)
  • Transitions Clinic
    • Mindful eating, Tai Chi, controlled breathing, art therapy, developing a wellness recovery action plan (WRAP)
These are the medications I've been on at various times for PTSD/anxiety/depression:
  • sertraline (SSRI)
  • citalopram (SSRI)
  • venlafaxine (SNRI)
  • trazodone (SARI)
  • bupropion (SSRI)
  • vitamin D
This doesn't count the times I went to the VA before I was actually diagnosed with PTSD (got out in 1992, wasn't diagnosed until 2009), or the social anxiety therapy I went through (2005ish) before I went back to the VA.

Has any of it worked? Yes and no. It depends on your (my) definition of success. It's hard to quantify what it means to say "this drug worked" or "that therapy worked". Correlation, as I have learned in natural science, computer science and math classes, does not equal causation.

That doesn't stop anyone, especially the VA, from often saying that drug A or therapy B is successful because they were able to survey a number of veterans at one hospital and no one bitched very loudly about it. When I first agreed to try medication, I distinctly remember having the psychiatrist explain that "we'll try this, and if it doesn't work we'll try something else and eventually we'll get the cocktail mix right." That's what I read in "the literature" and I hear it from other veterans. A lot of us call the pills by the general name Skittles, after the packets of different colored pellets of high density sugar in the candy section-- you eat them by the handful. PTSD treatment is like that-- handfuls of pills that seem to do about as much to get rid of the PTSD as handfuls of Skittles.

Again, definitions matter. PTSD is supposed to be something that can be cured-- watch a movie about someone with PTSD. At the start, it's all about the loss of a job and a failing relationship and the world falling apart and towards the end the script or the plot always hits fast forward a few months or a few years and shows the person living happily ever after. See, the script says, go get help and everything will be better before the credits roll.

The general impression I get, from all of the information I've collected put together with everything the VA has said over the years, is that no one really knows what works. If you get lucky and get the right combination of Skittles, things get better for you. If you don't, change the flavor. If you run out of flavors, well, we'll deal with that later.

I'm out of new flavors to try. Maybe pushing my meds levels back up will help make me feel better than I have been, maybe not. I was taking a much higher dose of what I've been taking (plus several other medications) before and during the time I was homeless, and ended up homeless anyway. I still have the same PTSD symptoms-- actually they shift around sometimes, but it's the same lot. I've honestly given up hope in the VA being able to do more for me, because I look at what they offer and I've had a taste of nearly all of it.

That little voice in the back of my head is whispering "ok, if you're going to do this on your own, isn't that the hard way?" My response to that is, what have the past couple of years been but the hard way?

I'm done with the meds and I'm done with the VA. Time for a different approach.

24 January 2016

Things and Changes

Things around here, right now, are sort of routine. I'm working (and getting to work) and in class (and getting to class). There are some really cool things coming up soon, which I'll get to in a minute, that are not necessarily routine but will be fun, and that's certainly okay.

That's liable to change at any given moment; whether it's true that things are liable to change at any given moment is always open for discussion. PTSD says that at any fraction of a moment the entire world can turn itself inside out and upside down. It's fear, but it's a different kind than you might experience if think you're about to be eaten by a grue. It's not the fear that something is happening, it's that something can happen-- but maybe it's not fear. So much has actually happened, so many really bad things over the past several years (and in fact, at various times throughout my entire life). 

It's different, somehow, when you've already experienced many of the really bad things that most people fear. Childhood abuse, very broken home, war, divorce, bankruptcy, PTSD, being homeless, health problems, losing friends, losing family... how much time and effort, how much therapy and counseling, how much self help and advice and religion and everything else do people invest in preventing these things from happening? Just like everyone else, I invested a lot in trying to keep things together, and in trying to keep the bad things that I had a chance of preventing from happening. I trusted a lot of different people. I trusted a lot of different therapy. I also trusted medication, meaning that I trusted research and science.

I still trust science and research if it is properly applied. There is a very small number of people on this planet that I trust, all of whom are or were military. I can't say that there's nothing I believe in any more, because that's not really true. I still have faith in a few things, one of the most important being me. I've often wondered why this is, because by all accounts anyone who's been through all of the shit I've been through should have given up a long time ago. *shrug* I must just be awesome.

Yeah, I know. I'm blowing my own horn, quite loudly. I offer no apologies. Here's why.

At work, the software development team I'm on is short one person. Internally, applications for new developers have been open for a bit. This coming week, we're doing interviews. The people who manage the department are going to be doing the interviews, but we (the current dev team members) are participating in conducting the interviews. Last week, I did a bunch of work on writing the questions we're going to ask, as well as sharing the duties of writing up technical documentation to get our new hires started quickly. It's very cool that not only am I writing code and getting paid for it (bonus!), but I have the opportunity to get practice doing some awesome team building work as well. Not bad for a student employee (basically an intern). I'm quite proud that the people that are our supervisors trust me (us) that much.

Next month, I'm going to California again-- this time to Stanford University for a weekend to participate in TreeHacks, Stanford's student hackathon. I don't know exactly what made the organizers of TreeHacks decide to let me attend. The application includes some general questions about what you'd like to hack on, and also asks for links to an applicant's GitHub, LinkedIn, and personal website. I do know that I have enough epicness that not only did I get accepted, but they're reimbursing me for most of my travel expenses.

Through everything that's been going on, I've been to hackathons at a bunch of awesome schools. Wisconsin, Michigan, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue, Waterloo (Ontario), Illinois, CalTech, Cal-Berkeley, USC. Coming up, Stanford, and after that Iowa State. (I've also been accepted for several others that I couldn't attend because I didn't have the resources to get there.) 

I've tended to internally discount all of the hackathons I've participated in, and all of the cool projects I've worked on. I've learned more than I can possibly list in a blog-- impostor syndrome is a real thing, and even more so with a disability like PTSD. How am I possibly good enough? I'm older. I have a disability. I could list all sorts of reasons why I can't do what makes me happy, but the truth is that I'm doing what makes me happy and I'm doing it well-- well enough that other people agree.

Which is pretty damn cool.

There's a lot of discussion going on about the economy, and whether we're in a tech bubble. Maybe we are, maybe we're not. My opinion? It doesn't matter. It in fact might matter, and matter a great deal, because I'm moving to California this summer. I lived through the Dot Com implosion in 2000, which was a whole lot more than a bursting bubble. It knocked me on my ass, honestly. It's entirely possible that I'll arrive in Silicon Valley at the worst possible time since then, end up homeless, in a really bad place, etc. I've certainly been in that place, where all of the money dries up etc. etc. It's not fun.

I'm moving to California anyway. I don't give a shit if we're in a tech bubble or if we're not. Maybe I'll have a lot of trouble finding someone to pay me to code, maybe I won't. Doesn't matter. I'm going to do what makes me happy, and being in California around a ton of other people who love to code will be a good thing. Am I afraid that it won't be a good thing? The negative voice in my head likes to tell me so. I'm listening less and less to that voice.

That I'm going to be at a hackathon at Stanford next month means a lot. There's so much technology, and so much philosophy surrounding technology, that I've used and learned and considered that originated in Silicon Valley. 

I said earlier that many of the things that I used to trust, I no longer have much faith in. Hacking-- programming, configuring, learning-- is one thing I have absolute faith in. It will take some time and effort to find the right place, some company or organization whose needs are a good fit with my skills. I have a lot of unique skills that many hackers don't have. I'm definitely not a cookie cutter person. I don't know how this will all turn out, but I'm going for it. 

21 January 2016

Desert Storm 25th

25 years this past weekend. That's how long it's been since Desert Storm, at least according to the calendar. According to my brain, how I think, how I feel, I don't know-- I can't tell. Some days it was so far in the past that I have no idea when it was, or if it was even real, and other days it might as well be happening today or right now.

I didn't see the TV news or really keep track of anything other than tech over the weekend, so I don't know if there was any coverage. I didn't see any mentions of the anniversary other than on social media, where I'm in a couple of groups of Desert Storm veterans. One of the threads was posting "where you were when Desert Shield became Desert Storm", and there were a few people who (I think) were either where I was or close to where I was. A lot of locations I recognized from having heard of them-- some places were existing bases, some were more tactical. Many were ships at sea. It's hard to imagine the number of people that were there-- half a million of us, give or take, not counting Iraqi forces that were on the other side of the border.

Another thread was "What's your MOS/AFSC/specialty" (in other words what did you do for whatever service you were in)? The military has almost as many different jobs to do as it does people to do them. I recognized a lot of the Air Force jobs, a few of the Navy jobs, and there were a ton of jobs in the Army and the Marine Corps that I have no idea about, although I did see a few I guessed right about.

I was a USAF ground radio repairman, often shortened to just Ground Rat. We got handed a lot of things that didn't seem to fit anywhere else but that somehow related or connected to a radio. Tape recorders, operator consoles, even telephone switching equipment. If the General's staff car had a stereo that didn't sound right, it went to ground radio. If the guy three doors down in the barracks had a boom box, chances are I could make it sound a little better (the soldering in most consumer sound equipment sucks). My standard fee for fixing someone's something was, and is, either a beer or a cup of coffee. I've fixed lots of things in my life, and had I've had a lot of free beer, and a lot of free coffee.

An aside. I'm sitting in the lobby of one of the campus academic buildings. There are a couple of kiosk computers here, the kind that are there for people to walk up to and check mail and such. At one of those kiosks, there is an older guy-- don't know if he's a student or not-- literally yelling at someone on Skype. I've had earplugs in for a while now, but they're not helping.

I ask him, as politely as I can, to please stop yelling. I explain that I've got earplugs in my ear and I still can't hear myself think. He tells me to fuck off, flips me the bird. I ask him if I need to call campus security. He says sure, fuck it, go ahead. He's called my bluff.

For whatever reason, now that the jousting contest is over, we start talking. He's a veteran, U. S. Army, late 1980's-- in and out before I was in. I'd seen him sitting in the same chair, in front of the same kiosk, lots of times and figured he was probably a vet and meant to say hello at some point. Put two veterans in proximity, it's likely a conversation will eventually start.

As we're talking, he's taking long pulls from a bottle of grape Gatorade that's probably mixed at least half and half with MD 20/20. He's not drunk, but he's not entirely sober either. It's the kind of drunk that someone stays for long periods of time. Self medication, just enough to dull the senses and take the edge off. When he says he's depressed, says he's got some bad PTSD, I believe him. I know the symptoms too well not to believe him. He's got razor marks on his wrists, long since healed. When he says he's tried to kill himself before, there's no doubt he's telling the truth. Those kind of marks on a person's wrists aren't symptoms, they're just facts.

We exchange war stories. 

He's had a hard, hard life. He's homeless. The system-- Porchlight, the city of Madison, the other people on the street-- hasn't been kind to him. As the conversation goes on, he fades in and out-- sometimes normal conversation, sometimes he's up in my face. He mentions that he's supposed to be on medication, rattles off the names of some of the same meds that I'm either taking now or have taken in the past. For a while, in bits and pieces, I think we understand each other. Then a few seconds later I'm not so sure I shouldn't have called security a long time ago.

I want to find something that can help this guy. I'm in way over my head-- as I've often written, I'm a patient, not an expert on mental health. At one point I mention a veterans organization that has a chapter here, Dryhootch. It was founded, and is run by, veterans. Instead of operating bars like some other veterans organizations, clubhouses where vets can go to self medicate *cough*VFW and American Legion*cough*, Dryhootch runs coffee shops; hence the name. Anyway-- the guy's reaction can only be described as what happens when you trigger a veteran with serious PTSD. It wasn't Dryhootch that made him upset. It was every veterans organization ever.

I wonder, for a second or two, if he's kidding. Maybe he's sort of mock saying "Hey, man no way" the way many vets respond when someone says "Hey, I know a group that..." He's most definitely not kidding. He's freaked the fuck out. Someone, or maybe more than one someone, at a VFW or American Legion or some kind of post either really pissed this guy off at some point, or really pissed on this guy at some point. (Maybe both happened. I can't say that I blame him for getting upset. I crossed a boundary, offering that kind of help-- but I knew already that suggesting he talk to the VA would be even less help. It was worth a try.)

I'm able to talk him down. I have lots of practice talking myself down, so I use the same approach talking to him-- telling him where he is, that there's no one else here, that it's just two veterans that happened to meet tonight talking. It works, for a little while. He's drunk enough that quiet conversation isn't his thing. 

In between the really weird moments, we talk about music, mostly metal. Anthrax. Slayer. Motley Crue. He wants to use the kiosk computer to play some metal really loud, and I have to keep reminding him that we're in an academic building. People are studying not far away, and if they're annoyed by the noise they're liable to actually call campus security. He flip flops between giving a fuck, and not giving a fuck. I don't want him to get arrested, because that would suck. I also don't want me to get arrested for being guilty by association.

I say that I understand, but I haven't walked in his shoes. I can relate, but not really understand. I'm not sure he's convinced.

There's a certain point where the little voice in the back of my head starts telling me it's time to get myself out of the situation I'm in. I want to do something to help this guy-- even if only half the stories he's telling are true, the world's been pretty cruel to him. He's suicidal, not in the way that I think he's going to take his own life right this second, but in the way of someone that thinks about it all the time (and has been for a very long time). I think he's tough, strong, and a survivor for being through everything he's been through, and I tell him so. I wish it would matter, but I don't think it does. If his spirit isn't yet broken, it's pretty damn close to being broken.

It takes a little while. I don't just get up and gather my shit and walk out, I'm a lot more careful. The conversation continues, with me saying more and more often that I've gotta go. I need to work in the morning. I'm lying, and I don't like it. I'm slowly abandoning this guy, but I don't know what else to do. Eventually, slowly, I put away my stuff, get my jacket on. So does he. The last I see of him, he's walking out the front door of the building. I do my best to disappear. I take an odd turn, go through a classroom with an extra door, take a different set of stairs one floor down and a different set of stairs up. Poof. Gone.

Honestly, I'm afraid he's going to follow me, but I don't think he will. Maybe. Just in case, I take a path through the building that lets me make sure I'm not followed, to a part of the building I know he doesn't have access to. I technically shouldn't be here either, it's one of my nights off, but I doubt anyone will make a fuss. No one else is here but the custodial staff, and we're used to crossing paths when I'm here working late at night.

It's a couple of hours now since the conversation ended. I'm also a little afraid to walk home-- I don't want to run into this guy again, especially in the middle of the street in the middle of the night. My brain is telling me that I need to find a new place to hack, that this building isn't safe anymore. Maybe the voice in my head is right. The PTSD is telling me to avoid it, avoid the guy, avoid everything, stay the fuck in my apartment. I'll be more careful. I'll avoid him. 

I hope like hell I'm not an asshole. 

I didn't-- don't-- know what else to do.

It's interesting that this happened tonight. Perhaps it's fitting that on a night when I wanted to write about the Desert and some of the things that have happened since then, something would happen that would make me look at myself in a new and different way.

There are literally thousands of men and women who are veterans that are very much like the guy I talked to for several hours tonight. Some of them are homeless, and some will be eventually. The VA can't or won't help, veterans organizations can't or won't help. Cities like Madison and many others want to eliminate homelessness by putting all of the homeless people where the rest of the world can't see them. The latest mantra is "housing first"; give everyone a place to live and everything will be fine. It's cheaper per homeless person that way, the nice people say.

I've lived on the street. Not as hard as a lot of people do, but I've been out there. One of my answers is, from experience, that the people that make up the social support system need to be accountable to someone. Right now they're not-- charities real estate companies like Porchlight can evict a veteran without a second thought, and the VA won't blink. People like the guy I met tonight can't go to the VA, and can't go to a veterans organization, because they've already been put through the bureaucratic bullshit that goes with trying to convince someone that you're a veteran to the point that even thinking about it hurts like hell.

There are people, like the veteran I met tonight, who will someday commit suicide, or die of untreated disease or die because they just can't go on any more-- and they will die alone and in silence because everyone they've ever trusted that's promised to help them has let them down.

I couldn't help him. All I had was words of support. For veterans-- people-- like him, words of support are empty, regardless of how sincere they are.

He mentioned more than once tonight that here I am with a computer, and a phone, and taking classes-- how could I possibly understand what he's been through and is going through? He was angry and loud and those were the moments where the inner voice in my head started saying "you need to get the fuck out of here". When he said he has nothing I knew he was right. That's why he was sitting at a kiosk in the first place, at an academic building at a university he'll never be able to attend. I didn't have an answer. I can tell you that the reason I even have a computer is that someone was throwing away the laptop I'm typing this on, and I was able to save it from recycling and make it work.

I can tell you that supper tonight was noodles and soup that I got from a food pantry, because I don't have any money until payday-- I spent my last paycheck on plane tickets to a hackathon next month at Stanford that I'll be partially reimbursed for. And I'll feel like a total ass for saying it, because who am I to stand up and say I'm fighting this disability, this PTSD thing? I have chances that other people don't have. I'm lucky. 

Which isn't true. I've worked my ass off to get off the street, to continue my education, and to get good enough at doing what I do that someone might actually pay me to do it. I can't explain how I was able to put aside alcohol, how I've never gotten into using drugs, because I don't know. If it's anything, it's just that I'm fucking stubborn. Every day I have to fight myself to get up, get dressed, get to work, get to class, and not give the fuck up.

No one, except the people that were directly involved, took time out this week to remember that twenty-five years ago a coalition of countries-- many more than just the United States-- went to war against a country that by all accounts wrongfully invaded its neighbor. If you ask ten random people on the street about the Persian Gulf War, I'll bet you that most of them will think you're talking about the Iraq War.

Growing up, no one ever told me about the Korean War. I liked M*A*S*H as a kid because it was funny, even though I didn't really get the jokes until I'd been in a war myself. Sometimes I hear veterans that served in Korea talk about the Korean War as a forgotten war. I wasn't there, but I can see why. No one ever explained what the Korean War really was about. I learned about it on my own.

Desert Shield and Desert Storm-- and the operations that happened immediately after-- are being quietly forgotten by the rest of the world. Except those of us who were there. We remember.

I don't know why fate put me and another veteran in the same room tonight; I don't know what will happen to that veteran I spent three hours talking to, trying to support. I wanted him to see that he was strong and brave for surviving as far as he has, hoping that if I could convince him just for a minute that it's true, that it would be something he could take and build on. Small steps. Maybe not fix everything, but get pointed in the right direction. I hope he'll be all right, but hope only goes so far. (And talk is cheap.)

I started writing, several hours ago now, because I wanted to say something about the Persian Gulf War. I'm trying to move the fuck on from it, let it be something that happened a long time ago in a far away place, but still keep hold of the good things. There were good things. We accomplished a lot in a very short time, with less resources than we should have had. I'm proud of what we accomplished. I got to see the world, and the war, from a point of view that very few people ever get a chance to see. (PTSD has other plans. We argue about this.)

What I want you to remember about the Desert isn't that I was there, or what I did, or what happened or didn't happen on the 25th anniversary of the beginning of Desert Storm. What I want you to know, and remember, is that there are people who served in the military who came back and fell through every single crack that there is to fall through. Even though there's a VFW, and an American Legion, and a VA, and all kinds of other organizations, people-- veterans-- still fall through all of the cracks.

What I want you to remember is that I met one of those veterans tonight, and I couldn't help him because I didn't know how, and so many others hadn't even tried.