By Jamese Slade
NCCU Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
According to USA Today, about one in four of the homeless are veterans. That’s a statistic veterans Raymond Mays and George Johnson knew firsthand. When they found themselves at their lowest, they turned to the Durham Rescue Mission in Northeast Central Durham, a men’s program that offers a helping hand. Mays and Johnson, came into the mission as drug addicts. They now are program supervisors at the mission and their lives are, for the first time in years, on track.
Raymond Mays, a former honor roll student and a high school graduate from Rocky Mount, has been in the mission’s men’s program for two months.
According to Raymond Mays, who joined the Army in 1977 and left as a sergeant, his problems began soon after surgery for thyroid cancer. “Once I had surgery, the thyroid brought on depression,” he said. Mays complains that military doctors didn’t inform him that he was being prescribed depression medication, in addition to thyroid medication. “The medication made me lose my mind and I went to the mental ward in 1980,” he said. “The whole time I only thought I was on thyroid medicine.”
When his enlistment ended Mays moved back to Rocky Mount, his home town, after the Army released him with 30 percent disability.
In Rocky Mount his mental condition didn’t improve.
“I had no sense of concentration and I had the mind of a child,” said Mays. “If I was looking at TV and someone asked me the score to a game I couldn’t tell them. If you don’t have your own mind and somebody is calling the shots for you … that’s a bad situation.”
Mays said the depression led him to street drugs.
“In 1981 I started going to the streets. I did street drugs and alcohol trying to feel better. I just wanted to feel normal again,” says Mays.
In 1986 he moved to Miami where he thought he would “snap out of it.”
In Miami he went to the Veteran Administration Hospital where they continued to give him depression medication. “I cried out to God and the nurses came in to give me more meds and I flushed them,” he said. “I grabbed a book to see if I could remember what I could read and I could. I knew at that time God had answered my prayers.”
But Mays — now knowing that the depression meds were part of his problem — continued to struggle with his addictions. Back in Rocky Mount he spent his disability checks on crack.
“I was smoking crack in that hotel for three days straight,” he said. “I came to, and I knew Satan was trying to take me out … I couldn’t see anything.”
And that’s when Mays called his pastor who took him to the Durham Rescue Mission. “That was my last time doing drugs,” said Mays.
Mays, who has been at the Durham Rescue Mission since Sept. 4, has been clean for two months. Now the only thing he takes is his thyroid medication.
The Durham Rescue Mission has given me a place for support,” says Mays. “I have surrendered my life to God since I have been here.”
Mays said the last two months at the mission have been the best two months of his life. “Without the mission, I would still be on crack, I know that.”
According to Mays the mission gives him work, food and a place to sleep and shower. He said that the structure provided by the mission is important. “The rules at the Rescue Mission are like being the in the military again. The only difference is they aren’t teaching you how to kill, they are teaching you how to live,” he said. “If I went to rehab it would be a cycle, in and out. Here they teach you about God. It isn’t a cycle, you stay on one path.”
Another vet who has turned to the Durham Rescue Mission’s men’s program for a helping hand is George Johnson. Johnson, a Gulf War veteran from Fayetteville, joined the Army in 1983, became a staff sergeant, and was honorably discharged in 1995.
Johnson said the military seemed like fun at the time but afterwards he realized that he had issues and had difficulty returning to civilian life.
“I was in the Gulf War and I was used to watching death and destruction. I was programmed and when I got back I didn’t know what to do,” says Johnson. “The Army taught me how to kill and destroy and when you get out … that’s all you know. You get depressed because you don’t want to feel like that. It may sound like an excuse, but you turn to drugs.”
Johnson said he feels abandoned by the Army, like a piece of broken equipment. “You are crying out for help, but you don’t know how to ask for help,” said Johnson.
Like many addicts Johnson first drank and smoked weed. He said at first he smoked weed to feel relaxed and less “programmed” and “paranoid.”
Johnson said he first tried hard drugs when he showed up at his “homeboy’s” house July of 1995.
“My friend pulled something out of his pocket and I asked what’s that?” said Johnson. My homeboy said: “That’s crack.”
Johnson said he took his first hit and didn’t feel anything. Then, out of curiosity, he took a second hit. He said he has been addicted ever since. “Drugs will take you away from yourself. You can look in the mirror and don’t know what you are looking at,” he said. “It will take a professor and turn him into a knucklehead. I wouldn’t wish that mess on my worst enemy.”
According to Johnson the best thing that happened to him was getting arrested for not paying child support. He said he got in saved while in jail. When he got out he had nowhere to go and he just began walking.
“It was like something turned me in that direction,” he said. And when he saw the top of the Mission’s chapel something said
He says he “got into things again” after an initial stay of about six months, but last April he returned and now “the nightmare stopped.” “God brought me here, and there is no sense in fighting or running from it anymore,” he said.
According to Mays and Johnson the military too-often forgets their vets. “When you get out, the military doesn’t want anything to do with you when they are done with you. It’s a lot of vets walking in the streets with nowhere to go,” said Johnson.
According to Johnson the Durham Rescue Mission is helping about 30 military VETS.