Richard Thornton | May 9, 2017 | 23
Remembering Lost Lives, Lost Souls and a Lost Nation
It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance and more desolation. War is hell.
Major General William Tecumseh Sherman
Memorial Day – 2016
In the spring of 2010, it was my honor to spend two weeks camping with a band of homeless veterans in the Chattahoochee National Forest. A key element of the Spiritual Path of the Creek People is that each day, whether joyous or traumatic, contains a lesson to be learned . . . if one is vigilante of his or her surroundings. There were many lessons learned in this segment of that path. The most important was that the casualties of war do not end after the last battle is fought, but continue on for decades afterward.
I had been living in a tent with my three dogs for several months in the mountains of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. The US Forest Service made campers relocate every two weeks. In addition to that mandate, I was trying to follow the routes of Spaniards Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo in the 1500s.
There was a retired Army sergeant, who had served two tours of duty in Viet Nam and in Desert Storm. He had been living in a camping trailer since the summer of 2009 and was the leader of the band of brothers. The trailer was essentially a miniature apartment complete with propane heater, kitchenette and miniature TV. The rest of the campers had coalesced around him during the previous two months. A couple of the men also had smaller camping trailers, which were essentially popup tents on wheels. The remainder lived in tents . . . most of which were jerry rigged tarpaulins.
Sarge was in early sixties and receiving a retirement check from the US Army. Most of the other men were in their early or mid-20s. They had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were a few Desert Storm Veterans, who were in their mid-to-late 30s. There two former lieutenants. One had been a engineering officer in Desert Storm. The other had been an infantry officer in Afghanistan. Quite a few men had gotten college degrees or at least technical college certificates after leaving the Army.
The men were already having health problems after only a few weeks in the woods. Many of the guys looked bloated, like they were filled with water. They were getting boils, infected cuts and fungal infections, because of not keeping themselves clean. The food that they were eating could have been the problem. Certainly not cleaning their bodies regular contributed to the infections.
The first thing I did, after setting up camp, was pull out my US Navy Survival-First Aid Kit and try to help them the best I could. I then went into town to the county library internet computer to order them a US Army survival-first aid manual off of Amazon.com. I had it priority-shipped to my PO Box in Blairsville, GA.
I am not a combat veteran, but while in Naval Officers Training, was given a special “independent command” curriculum for officers, who would be leading SEAL, CEC and Naval Intelligence teams in remote locations without logistic support. Knowing first aid is important for these assignments. I spent over a month alone in the jungles of Central America then later spent two weeks alone above the Arctic Circle in Lappland, near the Soviet border. That’s why this Jawja boy is an avid cross-country skier. LOL
Sarge couldn’t afford to feed all the men, who had taken refuge with him. They were dependent on local church and veterans groups to bring them food. Whereas my diet consisted of fresh vegetables such as cabbage, collards, sweet potatoes and white potatoes, plus aged cheese, eggs, chicken, pork chops or roast (when on special at the supermarket), fish from a nearby lake, lots of brown rice, grits and corn flat cakes, the church groups mainly brought them cheap canned vegetables and meats, plus white bread and Instant Ramen noodles from the Dollar General Store. Their food was chock full of salt and preservatives . . . and really was more expensive than my diet.
Each month, when Sarge’s retirement check came in, he would buy everyone a steak and potato. Other than on those days, the men mainly ate preserved meats. None of the men knew how to cook unprocessed foods or cook anything over a campfire. While married, they had been accustomed to their wives cooking most of the meals or else warming up processed foods in a microwave. So they were fascinated when they saw me cooking real food over hot coals in cast iron ware.
Lingering war-related traumas
There was little bitterness toward the politicians and generals, who had sent cynically them to the other side of the world with the mission of fighting “weapons of mass destruction” and the villains, who had committed the 9/11 atrocities . . . when in fact the “insurgents” were people, who were fighting Americans because they were there. None of the men ever encountered any enemy, who was a member of Al Quaida. On the other hand, I could not get any of the men, including Sarge, to describe their experiences in combat. They only wanted to talk about the previous civilian lives of their buddies, who they had seen killed or maimed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Most of the men, except Sarge, has been near at least one IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosion and it was obvious that the vets were still traumatized by them. Well, several had brain damage or had been wounded by IED’s. These horrific weapons were not figments of their imagination. The insurgents could not have chosen a more effective psychological weapon. During several nights, I heard men scream in their sleep. They were apparently having nightmares about the IED’s.
Vets on the run
By mid-2009, some veterans groups and “fringe” journalists were claiming that there were over a million homeless veterans in the United States as a result of the Mega-Recession. They produced figures that indicated that over 67% of the homeless adult males and females in the nation were veterans. Elected officials of both major political parties vehemently denied these claims.
Then “pet” journalists at FOX and MSNBC conveniently broadcast special investigative reports, which announced that there were “several thousand” homeless vets, but they were mentally ill, alcoholics or drug addicts. All 110,000 “normal” homeless vets were being taken care of at special Veteran Administration homeless shelters.
The politicians and bureaucrats lied and the statements made by veterans groups were much closer to the truth. About 90% of the people I met, who were living in the national forests were vets. The remaining 10% were romantic retired couples, living in comfy recreation vehicles or camping trailers. Most Americans are such pansies now, they would not dream of living in the wilderness for an extended period of time. They can’t imagine life without televisions and I-pads.
So why were these vets homeless and living in the national forest, rather than in cities? There is a very simple answer. Except for Sarge and the guys in the two other camping trailers, these vets were on the run from the law. When they last owned telephones, they also had been hounded by a legion of credit collectors. Everyone of the homeless vets, including Sarge, had gone through a divorce a few months before heading to the mountains. Bet the smiling talking heads on the national TV networks never told you that, did they?
I really should not be so hard on the good people up the mountains, who were feeding the homeless veterans. They were breaking the law by “giving aid and comfort” to men, who were wanted by the police authorities. They could have gone to prison themselves for their acts of kindness. Several of the men had multiple arrest warrants on their heads, issued by judges concerning unpaid debts!
That our “civilized society” does not have debtors prisons is yet another lie your teachers told you. The difference today is that debtors are incarcerated as common criminals.
All but one of the men, were exactly in the same situation as me. We had been in the construction or real estate industry. The Great Recession started in Georgia during mid-2007. You will be told why in the last section of this article. Most of the men became skilled construction craftsmen after leaving the army. They married and started families. Then they were laid off in 2007 or 2008.
Some of Atlanta’s largest and most prestigious architecture firms (that had survived the Great Depression) had closed their doors permanently by the time that Wall Street collapsed in December 2008. The men’s unemployment checks were insufficient to pay house notes and support a family. By mid-or-late 2009, they all had been foreclosed on and of course, divorced. Many had already served jail time for “contempt of court.”
You see, when the young wives divorced their unemployed husbands, the judges always assigned child and spousal support payments, based on the previous year, when the men had been employed. There were no jobs to be had. When the men couldn’t pay child and spousal support, they were hauled back to court and (as required by state law) had their drivers licenses taken away. With no car transportation, almost any job was unattainable. The men were then repeatedly sent to jail for 30 day periods for contempt of court. When they headed for the mountains and failed to appear in court to be yet again arrested, then a much more serious arrest warrant was automatically issued, which could result in a two year prison term.
There were similar stories from the college educated men. The civil engineer had obtained a personal loan in order to pay the salaries of his employees which was to be paid back when a client paid him. Instead the client went bankrupt. Wachovia Bank then seized all the contents in his office AND the furniture in his home.* They garnished the paycheck of his wife, who was a teacher. His child support payments were based on his previous years income of $60,000+. He never was able to make the first payment. He spent two 30 day stints in the Fulton County jail then a friend drove up to the mountains where the other vets were living.
The other former officer was rising rapidly up the management ladder of the Sports Authority store chain. A few weeks after he and his family moved to the affluent suburbs of Atlanta, he bought his first chain saw. Within a couple of hours after returning home from the Home Depot, he severely injured his leg while cutting down his first tree with his first chain saw. In fact, he almost bled to death. When the Sports Authority management learned that he would need a month of rehab and several months on crutches, they fired him.
Most of the hospital bills did not arrive until after he was fired. The Sports Authority’s health insurance company refused to pay the bills. Instantly the man was being hounded by credit collectors, representing the hospital and doctors. He owed over $200,000. The hospital then garnished his wife’s income. The house was soon foreclosed on and his wife filed for divorce. He was charged with contempt of court when he couldn’t pay the judgment obtained by the hospital. He spent two weeks in jail.
The former Sports Authority manager did have excellent camping equipment. He said that while his boss was waiting in the office to fire him, he purchased the best camping equipment in the store on his employee account and sent it home via a friend.
After I moved into the chicken house near Blairsville, I wrote a series of articles in the Examiner about the abominable situation of homeless veterans in the United States. Not only did I describe the experience in the Chattahoochee National Forest, but interviewed other vets in the area, who were living maritime shipping containers, their cars, even an abandoned bus that had formerly hauled newly hatched chicks.
Whereas, my architecture articles generally drew 12 to 200 readers a day, the homeless veteran articles went viral. There were over a hundred thousand primary readers and millions of secondary readers around the world. Soon the big-name national TV journalists got on the band wagon and stopped labeling homeless vets as drug addicts and alcoholics. The next thing we knew, Congress was passing laws to help the homeless vets. That might have never happened, if I had not been homeless at the same time and same place as them.
Middle Eastern wars, Hurricane Katrina and greedy lawyers triggered the Mega-Recession
None of these vets were the cause of their miserable situation. It personally makes me very angry when wealthy rightwing TV commentators put the blame on the people, who lost their houses and their employment. These men worked hard and did everything that society said men were supposed to do. They paid a terrible price for the greed and corruption of others.
During 2006, the cost of construction materials skyrocketed because of the many huge Department of Defense projects underway in the Middle East and also the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of general contractors lost money on projects in the Southeast because of up to 60% increase in materials prices while their buildings were under construction. Thus, when Wall Street collapsed due to the greed and corruption of its moguls, the construction industry in the Southeast was already collapsing. However, in Georgia laws were passed that quickly turned the collapse into a financial tsunami.
In 2006, when the Republican Party gained complete control of the state government in Georgia, six lawyers, half of whom were Democrats, wrote a series of “suggested” laws which sacked the consumer protection laws in that state. The elected officials passed these laws without change. They allowed mortgage holders to foreclose on home loans if they were unpaid for one month and one day. The new law also forbade judges from hearing court cases related to foreclosures. The six men then formed a mega-law firm, which gained a near monopoly for servicing FannieMae’s foreclosures.
Georgia’s real estate prices quickly collapsed as greedy bankers foreclosed on as many houses as possible as soon as possible. The foreclosed homes caused the speculatively built homes to cost far more than they could be sold for. Georgia had far more federally insured banks to go under during the recession than any other state. The recession then spread to Florida and then to the rest of the nation.
I often wonder what happened to brave band of brothers in the Chattahoochee National Forest. As I headed south, they headed north into Tennessee, because they were tipped off that a politically ambitious Georgia District Attorney was about to send a team of deputies and forest rangers to arrest them. He couldn’t go after the drug dealers, because they were his main source of contributions. Therefore, he was going after the “deadbeat” dads in the national forest.
And now you know!
* Perhaps the most outrageous thing that the big banks did during the Recession was seize personal property belonging to past due borrowers. While the institutions that caused the economic collapse, were receiving a massive bail out from American taxpayers, the big banks filled warehouses with people’s furniture, college diplomas, computers, etc. There was no market for such items so invariably, all these seized items were hauled off to land fills in a couple of months.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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