Different war, same demons

Kaylah Jackson
October 02, 2018 - 4:01 pm

(Images courtesy of New Direction for Veterans)

When Sadam Hussein set fire to oil fields in 1991 during the Gulf War, the ground troops of the 3rd Marines were ordered to respond to an explosion nearby to identify the sea of dead bodies scattered everywhere. One of those Marines  was Michael Littleton.

“I was scared to death, I didn’t expect to see that. We didn’t have the news, everybody else at home was seeing these that I hadn’t seen and all the sudden I was there seeing it—it looked like we were going through the gates of hell,” said Littleton.

Richard Freeman, who grew up in Pineville, Louisiana in an environment filled with drugs, alcohol and racial unrest, joined the U.S. Navy to escape the problems of home.

“Getting in trouble as a youth, drugs, and alcohol. Then they integrated the schools so that didn’t sit out too well, caused a lot of problems, riots and all back in the south so I just decided to go into the Navy and do better for myself,” said Freeman. That landed him in Vietnam.

While both of these veterans saw their fair share of war in different lands serving more than a decade apart, they both experienced similar struggles upon returning home.

For Littleton, it was a battle with alcoholism to cope with the “dark things,” that started to take shape after the adrenaline of coming home died down.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Littleton)

“I pretty much was working myself to death, kind of hiding I guess you could say the dark signs of things in my head. You know the demons that you don’t want coming out or you’re afraid to speak of, they caught up to me,” said Littleton.

With an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, Littleton worked various tech contracting jobs but soon found himself curled up in his parents’ home with a bottle of Jim Beam.

“I didn’t have any regiment of you know being on base, being in charge of my guys, making sure things are getting done, I didn’t have anything to do…I ended up in a corner in my old bedroom.”

To his dismay, he didn’t have a listening ear from his mother, who told him “I can’t listen to this, I can’t deal with that Michael, you gotta talk to somebody else about that.”

He even reached out to his father, also a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam era who didn’t want to hear his own son’s laments for help.

“I told him [his father] he didn’t deserve his rank. You’re not gonna help a fellow marine because you didn’t go to war? And we had a falling out because of that,” said Littleton.

Freeman, who found himself in a military prison was discharged from the Navy after serving two years from 1974 to 1976 but came home to the same issues that he had left years before. Even among his 23 brothers and sisters, his friends and family didn’t offer much reprieve for Freeman who had joined the military to escape his home life.

“You got people that didn’t like veterans,” said Freeman “I just came home, visited two or three weeks and left.”

After serving overseas in the Philippines, Okinawa and Cam Ranh Bay, among other ports and coming home to an unwelcoming community, Freeman found himself on the streets, bouncing from town to town.

“Life hadn’t been so easy for me. And I’m not saying to blame anyone but me you know, it gets hard, that’s why a lot of veterans commit suicide, a lot of em’ drink.”

Freeman, like Littleton, struggled with those same bad memories making it hard for him to reintegrate.

“Being in any kind of conflict or war zone, the memories and nightmares they never leave,” said Freeman. No matter what kind of medication you take or how many good people you’re around, you always think somebody’s out to get you or somebody’s out to hurt you or harm you. It’s hard to settle.”

Those nightmares made it challenging for Freeman to keep relationships throughout his life, with his children and then-spouse.

Though both men couldn’t find assistance from their families, they did find it at New Directions for Veterans (NDVets), a comprehensive veterans center in Los Angeles, California. What started as a five-bedroom house for homeless Vietnam War veterans, has expanded to offer not only transitional housing programs but also services for substance abuse, job training, and counseling.

Leo Cuadrado, a Marine veteran and the Chief Operating Officer of New Directions for Veterans always had the dream of heading a non-profit after retiring from service. As a child, he experienced homeless. From crowd surfing and living in the back of a vehicle, serving this community of veterans is close to his heart.

“I understand the community that we serve and I have all respect in the world for these gentlemen that stepped up that need help and we are doing the work to help them,” said Cuadrado.

Littleton found NDVets after a friend brought him to a VA veteran’s stand down which provided homeless veterans with living necessities including food, clothing and mental heal assistance, among other resources. It wasn’t until 2001 that Freeman came across NDVets, which accepted him in their transitional housing facility while there was a warrant out for his arrest.

For both veterans, NDVets has offered them substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and a safe space to share their memories from their time in uniform that even their closest family members have never heard.

“I feel like the Michael I used to be,” said Littleton. “That made a world of difference being able to tell some of the shocking, I mean you can watch a movie all you want but when you’re there? It’s a whole different world.”

NDVets provided both men with a structured environment for them to separate themselves from their addiction and prepare them for the workforce, but neither veterans are in a rush to hurry that restorative process.

“As long as I can maintain and not use drugs and alcohol…and go to church and study the bible, get around positive people,” said Freeman. “I got this problem beat now.”

Both veterans have been sober for five years and are looking forward to the next steps in their life. For Littleton, that means a steady job so that he can provide for his three daughters, who he hasn’t seen in five years. For Freeman, it’s finding a permanent home after he leaves NDVets and staying the course free from self-medicating.

     To comment on this or share your story email us at gethelp@connectingvets.com