Almost 25 percent of homeless people are military veterans. Transitioning from the battlefield to a civilian job or school can be challenging -- especially if the veteran has unresolved problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bruce Fyfe, chairman of the board at Clearwater’s Homeless Emergency Project, understands the plight of homeless veterans at several levels. Fyfe and his wife, Wanda, helped raise more than $1.6 million to build a 32-unit complex specifically for homeless veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“This is pretty much what they look like, full bedroom, living area, full kitchen with a stove, microwave,” Fyfe said as he showed off the individual unit that will allow them to accept both male and female veterans.
“We used the same criteria we always use, would this be a place that I would stay in. If it isn’t, I don’t want to build it and that’s been the philosophy of HEP since we started.”
The brand new complex for OIF/OEF veterans cost $3.7 million to build and includes a Veterans Clubhouse with common areas for computer work, television viewing and a workout room with up-to-date exercise equipment.
Fyfe is a businessman, the executive vice president of ProVise Management Group, LLC, and he has volunteered on the HEP board for 21 years. He and his wife have been helping homeless people for decades – many of them veterans.
“The irony is that I was doing this and I couldn’t help my son,” Fyfe said. “He (Brendan MacDonald Fyfe) served three tours as a combat Marine in Iraq during the worst of the fighting. And, he was in a weapons platoon so he was – particularly his first two tours – in combat virtually every day.”
Fyfe’s son showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after his first tour, and even stronger PTSD symptoms after his second deployment to Iraq. He was scheduled to leave the Marine Corps with an honorable discharge, but Fyfe said Brendan’s unit was called back to Iraq.
“He elected to extend his tour because he didn’t want to see his unit go back without him,” Fyfe said. “One of the kids that he served with told me that during the second tour he had saved his life and they had become quite good friends. And when they were going back, they invited him over for dinner. His wife told me the story and she said, ‘I feel so badly because I begged your son to go and protect my husband.’”
Fyfe said that third tour for Brendan was probably “one tour too many” because his son returned with severe PTSD symptoms like anger and alienation.
His son had a hard time transitioning into civilian life. He moved to Massachusetts to be close to his Marine buddies, tried college, had several jobs, went into a VA program, turned to alcohol and then drugs.
“He ended up dying of a drug overdose at the age of 24,” Fyfe said quietly. “Which is a phone call I will never forget and never, I hope anybody else ever receives.”
At the funeral for Brendan MacDonald Fyfe – in what Bruce describes as a moment of hubris – he announced that he and his wife were going to start a fund to help veterans like their son. Two and a half years later, they’re cutting the ribbon on the 32 individual units for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
“And there’s some real fulfillment there,” Fyfe said. “This is a milestone, but it’s the beginning. It’s not the middle, it’s not the end. There’s a great deal of work left to be done.”
That’s because more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are transitioning out of the military every day. Fyfe worries if there are enough services and resources to help them transition from the battlefield to civilian life.
“Unfortunately, more and more veterans are going to be getting into trouble,” Fyfe said. “The war ends for the public. It does not end for the people who fought it and it certainly does not end for the families who lost loved ones in it.”
With the completion of the HEP West Veterans Housing, Fyfe is looking forward to a less public role and plans to focus on his next project – developing a business that will make HEP self-sustaining.