MILLEDGEVILLE — Four months after they were pushed out of a state dormitory in a budget-cutting move, life is a mixed bag for Georgia veterans on their own.
Many have found more freedom and larger quarters, living in mobile homes or apartments instead of the 8-by-8 rooms they had at the Georgia War Veterans Home.
These aren’t mansions or even middle-class houses. But they have their own bathrooms and carpeted floors instead of a dormitory’s tile.
With the help of local church members, some veterans have organized to support each other instead of relying on the state to provide meals, medicine and a place to lay their heads.
Others have simply scattered. Eighty-one veterans were told to leave the Wheeler Building at the home last fall. The war veterans home said it didn’t have hard numbers last week to show who went were.
But 27 of them were sick or old enough to be moved from the state’s dormitory-style units and into a government-funded veterans hospital or nursing home, a spokesman said shortly before final closure last year. As for the others, a department spokesman said staffers are keeping up with the ones “that want to be kept up with.”
Linda McGee, a volunteer working with the veterans, said she’s kept tabs on 40 or so veterans. Some moved in with family. Some became roommates. Some live alone. A growing group meets for breakfast once a month, and they’re organizing a car wash and auction fundraiser to help meet everyone’s needs.
Others simply “scattered like the wind,” McGee said. One man was found living in “the most nasty place I’ve ever been in my life,” she said. A group of local sorority women was sent in to clean.
The veterans themselves said a few of them have died since the move, though there’s nothing to show those deaths stemmed from leaving the war veterans home. Some said they are happier now than they were at the home. Still others are struggling outside the veterans home’s supervised walls.
“It seems like, since they left the vets home, their health is deteriorating,” Vietnam veteran Eleazar Elizalde said of some of the men he met in the two years he lived at the home. “It’s depression, you know? They’re not around people.”
Even for those doing well there is a new psychology to living. No longer are there brothers next door, or three meals a day without effort or money.
“It’s kind of hard having to adjust to life,” said Elizalde, who rents a house in Baldwin County. “Try to get back to cooking ... and being by yourself. It’s kind of strange.”
When the state announced it was closing the Wheeler Building’s “domiciliary” floors to deal with dwindling state revenues, there was an outcry of bitterness, and much of that remains. Veterans, Milledgeville area residents and local politicians remain upset over the closure and the way the state went about it.
Veterans were given 90 days and help from state officials to find new places to live. The closure saved the Georgia Department of Veterans Service about $2.7 million a year — enough to hit its 10 percent cut target in one fell swoop, while affecting only one hundredth of a percent of the state’s veterans.
Many of the veterans qualified for vouchers, which help cover rent. Many get disability pay or some other form of government subsidy. The community reached out and filled in some holes, donating furniture, dishes and the other things some of these men hadn’t had to think about for years.
Frank Smith, who served in the Air Force in the late 1960s, said he gets a good deal on a single-wide trailer from a local church deacon. McGee’s group gave him a bed. He bought a battery-powered weed eater to cut the grass.
Smith said drug and alcohol abuse left him homeless in the late 1990s, and he ended up at the Wheeler Building. Unsupervised now, Smith said he has no fears of a relapse.
“That’s in the past,” he said. “That’s a dead soldier. ... I think this is what God had planned for me in the first place.”
Elizalde said he knows a former Wheeler resident living in the county. He calls him from time to time but said he usually can’t get his friend to answer the phone.
“I literally, physically have to go out there and check on him,” Elizalde said. “He kind of just doesn’t do much. ... He’s kind of given up.”
Bob Paddon and Bubba Baker moved in together when the domiciliary closed. They share a passion for fishing, and bait crickets chirp in the single-wide trailer they share on a crowded residential road.
Paddon lived in this same home with his wife before she died. “We make our own rules here,” Baker said. “We’re not missing any meals. Linda McGee has been our angel, and all the people that donated stuff.”
Clarence Butts is a de facto leader among the men evicted from the Wheeler Building. He’s 80 but doesn’t look it. Like other veterans with a car, he helps his friends get where they need to go.
Butts lives at Pecan Hills, a well-appointed apartment complex/assisted living facility near downtown Milledgeville. He has a two-bedroom apartment with all the basics, plus an electric guitar he uses to play along with blues CDs.
Henry Green lives in the same complex. He served as an Army combat medic in the mid-1990s and was one of the younger veterans at the Wheeler Building. He’s also one of the few interviewed by The Telegraph who works, saying he spends eight days a month at the Oconee Medical Center as a cardiac monitor technician.
The others said they get by on a hodgepodge of government subsidies, which vary by veteran.
Green said stress from leaving the Wheeler Building put him in the hospital for 13 days with “adjustment disorder.” Now he’s glad to have his own bathroom, instead of sharing one with a bunch of sick guys, though sometimes life’s simple things seem a little daunting.
“Trying to make a new friend, trying to keep from being an outcast,” he said. “(At the Wheeler Building) it was a brotherhood ... and you felt proud of yourself.”
There are plenty of success stories in this change, but McGee said she’s afraid bad living conditions are “probably more common than we know.” It’s hard to say how many veterans are falling through the cracks, and the department won’t give out contact information because of privacy rules.
“Any way we can find these guys, we want to find them,” McGee said.
On the political end, state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, has repeatedly pointed to the domiciliary closing as one of the worst examples of state budget cuts. He said he was glad to hear many of the veterans have moved on to better circumstances.
But other veterans — homeless veterans — could use the space, he said. Instead the former domiciliary sits empty on two floors of a larger building that remains in use.
Baker keeps a positive outlook, despite a recent diagnosis of prostate cancer. The government is paying for tests and treatments at the V.A. Medical Center in Dublin that would cost most people a small fortune.
“They’re taking care of me,” he said.
Baker said he’s glad to be out of the Wheeler Building, even though “we hated it, we fought it” when the closure was announced.
“That was existing there,” he said, sitting on his second-hand couch. “This is living.”
To contact writer Travis Fain call 744-4213.