Forgotten Fight Oral History Transcript
James Phillip Jr: JP
Harold Smith Jr: HS
Kelsey Glander: KG
Other: unnamed woman in room
Transcribed by: Su Spina
KG: Okay. Okay. So, we’re gonna start off if each of you could tell me your name, how you came to Richmond, where you grew up and a little bit about your family life. That’s how we’ll start, so we’ll start with you.
HS: Harold Smith, Jr from Smoking, Pennsylvania. My grandfather was a retired WWII vet. My father was a slug (?) and I grew up in a coal mining town.
KG: Alright, James?
JP: Name, James Philip, Jr. I was born here, but I didn’t grow up here. And my grandparents raised me and my brother and I joined the military in 1986. That’s been it since.
KG: What brought you back to Richmond?
JP: My kids. I have two grown kids and now I have a grandson. And I said I was only gonna be here till 2002, but now I’m still here. That’s it.
KG: So can each of you tell me about your life today?
HS: Oh, I’m good. Alison, my case manager, her and I have been working together for the last ten months since I got here. I’ve been here a year as of March 2. She finally got me housing. There was a lot of red tape, a lot of hoops, but hippity hop, hippity hop.
JP: Yeah, I went through family when I first became homeless, and that didn’t work out. But now, I got housing. I went through everything: overflow, sleeping in trucks, and this and that. But now I’m okay. I’m good. I got my stuff under VA, my pension and everything, I’m good. I’m alright.
KG: So, when did you join the military, and what led to your decision to join?
HS: Well, I tried to get into the delayed entry program before I graduated in 1981, but some doctor, full disclosure: I had admitted to taking Dexatrim over the counter, y’know freakin dietary supplement. So he disqualified me for six months. Okay, so let’s go to college then. Tried Bloomsburg, but graduated from school, to go to another school? I didn’t see fit. So, October 28th, 1984, I was inducted.
KG: What branch of the service?
HS: United State Army.
KG: What did your friends and family think of your decision?
HS: My wife wasn’t too happy about it because I had to uproot her and take her to California and that’s where the divorce rolled in. My family was gung-ho about it, but she wasn’t. I picked the Army over my wife.
KG: James, when did you join?
KG: Why did you join?
JP: I wanted to get out of the lifestyle I was in.
KG: What did your friends and family think?
JP: They thought it was great. Cause I excelled in everything I did, when I was in basic training. I excelled in everything, so they though it was great.
KG: What was your training like and what do you remember most about training?
HS: I was inducted to a cohesion unit. We were buffalo soldiers, and our whole battalion trained together and got airlifted up to Fort Ord and Fort Bedding. So I didn’t have AIT (?) even though the ASPAB (?) said I could have been whatever I wanted to be. But I asked the recruiter, what’s gonna take me to California? Sign here, grunt, okay no problem.
KG: What was your training like? What do you remember the most?
JP: Trying to excel. I remember a competition with this guy, doing pushups. I was almost at 100 pushups, and he beat me.
HS: Probably by one. [laughs]
JP: Actually by two. [laughs]
HS: Cause I know Fort Benning, Dust Bowl, get up get down get up get down.
KG: What was your job in the military?
HS: Team leader.
KG: What did you find the most or least challenging or interesting?
HS: Maintaining the men. Because we were a cohesion unit, we went through basic training with everybody and we knew everybody on a personal basis. So the problem I had was when I got my rank, and the privates that didn’t get their rank, the comradery was still there. You know what they say about fraternization, I’m E4 (?), I’m not supposed to fraternize with privates. Yeah, but we’re a cohesion unit, that private helped me and I helped him, so I’m not allowed to fraternize with him. That was the most difficult part.
KG: What was your job? What was challenging?
JP: When I first went in, I was field artillery, and I went into MP. And then I had to get out of MP and went into Special Ops. Like me, him, you, and myself, you have to coop yourself together and think about everybody. Not think about yourself. That was a changing thing in my life. I wish I could have stayed in MP, I messed up. Special ops was better, I really enjoyed that better.
KG: Do you have a specific memory about Special Ops?
JP: Yeah, Panama. Who was in Panama… We had to do a lock-in [unintelligible]. We had to do a lock in, because we came under fire, so I grabbed a guy who was beside me. And then we landed. That was it. As long as he was okay. I coulda got shot. I won’t worry about it.
KG: What was it like thinking about, in that moment, thinking about him instead of yourself?
JP: I mean, he had kids, I have kids. But, I really won’t think it. I just wanted to be sure
[Someone knocks on the door]
JP: And we both still talk to this day.
KG: That’s awesome. So, can you tell me about the different places you were stationed?
JP: England, Japan, Camp Casey in Korea, Germany, I can give you the list.
KG: Do you have a favorite?
JP: England. I got twins in England.
KG: Were you ever deployed to a combat zone?
JP: Yeah, Gulf War.
KG: What was it like coming home from the Gulf War?
JP: I was just happy to be home. I came from St. Louis to the rec (?) center. And you come from the field of war, and then you go to a place where you’re just dealing with paperwork. It didn’t sit right.
KG: Why didn’t it sit right?
JP: Cause I felt like I needed to be out there on the battlefield instead of sitting here doing paperwork. [unintelligible]
KG: So, Harold, can you tell me about the different places you were stationed and some of your memorable experiences?
HS: I’m not a combat soldier. And like I said, we were a cohesion unit, we were locked in a Camp Orb for three years. Gateway to the Pacific. My memorable experience is me and a couple of troopers, every weekend, renting a car at the Monterey airport and going up to Santa Cruz and hanging out at Yosemite National Park. I don’t have combat experience, so therefore I cannot — he can tell you more about that then I can.
Other: Yosemite had to be awesome.
HS: It is awesome!
KG: So you spent a lot of time there with your guys?
HS: No, I spent a lot of time with my guys. Because I was the platoon armorer, so I’d have to field trip the whole m16 (?), pull the trigger mechanisms out, wipe cloth this.
KG: This question is for you, James. From your memories of deployment, are there any things you miss about being deployed?
JP: Really, no. One thing I can say, it’s in my book in there, when I was MP, I was doing something [unintelligible] and they got away. And I was shooting for the head, but I hit him in the shoulder. I was kinda happy about that. I didn’t kill him. That’s about it.
KG: Is there anything either of you miss about your military experience in general? Just being in the military?
HS: Yeah, I miss the closeness out in the field and comradery. And playing with ordinance (?). Where else can you kill one person, 800 times. That’s all it is. At one point they told us, take all of the ordinates (?), in order to get the full budget from the Reagan administration, we had to go out and shoot everything. Throw the grenades, boom boom. M60s, M16s, and then here’s zero. And there you go, your full budget. So it’s pretty much all about money. And I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were an MP, you should have said that.
KG: So, what did your friends and family say when you exited the military?
JP: They was kinda glad. They saw a part of me that was, with the military stuff, they was glad that I was out of it and try to do something else in civilian life. That’s what we call life outside the military, civilian life. They was glad I was doing something outside the military, cause I was bad off. But I feel good now.
KG: Why did you leave the military?
JP: Actually my time was up, really. 22 years, I was done. Politics and everything, I had had enough. I can get out now? I’ll get out now.
KG: How about you?
HS: Uh, drugs. OTH (?), because of drugs. 23 years old, you wanna unleash a whole freaking battalion of men on Monterey, California? Yeah, I was OTH.
KG: How did your family respond?
HS: I have one sister, and that’s all the family I have. As far as community, come on, you’re talking about a dump in Smoking, Pennsylvania. It’s a coal mining town. All the industry left. And when they shut down the mines, they pretty much shut down the town. Our biggest excitement was Walmart SuperCenter coming in [laughs] and boom there it is!
KG: So what brought you to Richmond?
HS: My last $200 from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I was homeless in a warehouse, 22 below zero. And I had my last $200, went to the Amtrak train, how far can I go with this? Richmond, Virginia. And I got pretty much dumped off at homeless point of entry. And I talked to Dio, you may know him as squirrel, but I don’t call him squirrel because of respect. He pretty much showed me the ropes, and that’s how I met up with Alison at Wounded Warriors, actually it was her superior in the same office. Yeah, she’s been hustling real good for me.
JP: Like what he’s saying, as long as you got strength in your legs, he kept going.
KG: You just keep truckin’.
HS: You got to man, I had to qualify every 2 months. 12 mile speed march. I had to get it down under three hours. Best time, 2 hour 11 min and 13 sec. Full gear. Yeah.
KG: So, both of you can answer this, or either one. What were your relationships like with other members of the military and did you maintain any of those when you left?
JP: No, I didn’t.
HS: Neither did I.
KG: Do you think your experience in the military changed your world view or relationships about the military and your community?
HS: Yeah, it made me a better man. And I look at every civilian as a civilian. When I took the oath, domestic terrorism and freakin’ foreign terrorism, I think with all the drugs that are out here, we have a lot of domestic terrorism going on and they’re taking advantage of the weak. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
JP: You feel helpless, at some point.
HS: Pretty much. And that don’t feel good.
KG: Are there any specific instances that stand out to you where you realized your world view changed? Going through your daily life and maybe something happened, and you’re like wow.
JP: I know that people I used to work with and [untintellible] with, and they’re not trying to do anything with themselves. And they come to me, and I’m not your savior. You have to come to be someone who wants to do something. Help yourself. You’re not trying to do that and I see that. I’ve been living here and traveling back and forth for about 10 years since I got out of the military, and I see these, I work with them, and I know them, and I try to help them the best I can. But I’m not going to go beyond myself to help you with what you’re doing. I know what you’re doing. No. It kinda hurts, in a way. I don’t wanna turn my back or anything, but if you ain’t trying to help yourself, I can’t help you. I got five kids.
HS: I only have two [laughs] and they’re both a handful.
KG: So have either of you worked with any organizations to help veterans since leaving the military? I think you mentioned Wounded Warriors.
HS: ASWAN (?) primarily, trying to square away with that dung heap they call a shelter down there in Richmond.
KG: I’m going there tomorrow.
HS: You are? Pay attention, sweetheart. Actually, it should be empty, because it shouldn’t be open above 40 degrees. But during the hurricanes and everything else, they close it down. So you have homeless people out in the rain. Me, I prefer not a shelter. I have my tent, I have it established. When this falls through, and I don’t get a decision, I’m going back to my tent. And that’s where I’m comfortable. By myself, leave me alone. I primarily remove myself from society. I get claustrophobic when I’m in a room with too many people like this. And I’m under the gun. So yeah. But, I thought I’d help. Richmond, Pennsylvania, they say screw Pennsylvania. As far as their vets, you’re on your own.
KG: I actually was trying to conduct this project up in Pennsylvania originally, no one wanted to work with me. No one wanted me to speak to anyone who received services and my hypothesis is because they were scared that these people would be disappointed in the services they received. I got the vibe that they don’t want people to.
HS: Cause in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, our main office is in a YWCA, so the YWCA is mainly concerned about sheltered women, abused women. And we’re in the fucking basement.
KG: Yeah, I’ve been there. I’ve seen it, I’ve talked to them. So what challenges do you feel like you’ve faced since leaving the military? When did you leave the military, by the way?
HS: 1987, 1986. I don’t know.
KG: What challenges do you think you faced?
HS: I didn’t. I just went from one homelessness to another. Cause my family didn’t really care about me, I was raised and born in a freaking foster home.
KG: How did you become homeless?
HS: My mother and father rejected me and put me in a foster home. So I figured from age 13, I became homeless. I was shucked around, but as soon as I turned 18, I was on my own. Homelessness starts. Yep.
JP: That’s the beast.
KG: How about you, James? How did you become homeless?
JP: I was living with a lady that I used to work with when I got out of jail. And she died. And I couldn’t take over the lease or anything, to where she was living. I didn’t haven nowhere to go. And I actually moved in with my grandmother, and my grandfather had died, and she based everything on him when he was alive he would do this, do that. He’s gone! I can’t do all this.
HS: I concur on that.
JP: Basically she put me out, so I had to live on the street. I was even living in a truck in the backyard of her house, my grandparents’ house. Staying in a pickup truck at night. To make a long story short, you know what she wants me to do now? “If you have some time, you think you might be able to come over here and stay with me for a little while?” You really asking me that? No. I gotta place, an apartment.
HS: My mother did that to me. She ran away from the family, and as soon as she started dementia and physical ailments, all of a sudden now she wants me and I was told give until it hurts. Do not discriminate. Alright, Mom, what do you want me to do? Every day, three times a day, poke her in the stomach with freakin’ insulin. My stepsister and I would take turns, shifts, taking care of her. Felt an obligation though, because she’s a citizen. I looked at her as a civilian, not as a responsibility.
JP: It’s hard.
HS: You’re cutting deep. You’re cutting deep.
KG: Can either of you guys, or both, tell me what the hardest thing was about not having a home?
JP: I slept in a trash can.
HS: I slept in a dumpster. [laughs]
JP: Same thing, but I knew it was brand new. One of them flap over cans. I actually slept in one of them. It gives you a reality check of what you’re going through.
HS: And on the streets, no one’s your friend. No one is, man. It’s just a cutthroat freaking life. And that’s because they’re taking care of themselves.
Other: I’m gonna lighten up and say, I can imagine you sticking your head out of that can. [laughs]
JP: [laughs] Oh, I actually flipped over and cut myself. I was bleeding all over the place. I came out the back end of it, and the wheels rolled, and I fell. But it was at a friend’s house.
Other: Oh good, so you didn’t have to be graceful.
KG: So what is your daily life like now, what do you guys do from day to day?
JP: I go to classes, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. I go to classes over at the VA hospital. I told them I’m going to do moderate. Cause I drink. But I can’t see myself right now doing fully not drinking. So they know that. So that’s what I’m doing right now. Everything else, I deal with my kids, my grandson, and this and that. I just, I forget. I sent my son out to California. And I feel good about it, I have the money to do it.
HS: What’s the question again?
KG: What does your day-to-day life look like?
HS: I’m sitting waiting for this federal government to give me disability, the SSDI or whatever, cause I don’t get a pension, I get diddlysquat. So in two months, if that don’t come through, I’m out and back to my tent. That’s why I maintain my tent. It’s a simple life. And I’m doing crafts, these crafts from the hospital, the veterans hospital. Got to generate some kind of income. And I’m an alcoholic also, and I like my weed. [laughs] And D.C. just decriminalized it, so yeah.
KG: Is it easy to make friends in your current situation?
HS: No. Acquaintances, that’s all I have. Cause there are no friends, cause as soon as you turn around, it’s just like living in Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love, as soon as you turn around they stick you in the back.
KG: Do you feel the same way?
JP: Yeah, like he just said. When you’re going through a situation, as you’re trying to do something, like myself, you have to distance yourself from where you was at. I still speak to them, but I know what you all about, and what you gone ask me for. Nah. Tough love. I’m sorry.
HS: Your problem, bro.
JP: I’m sorry, I can come home, and be at peace with myself and with what I’m doing cause I’m dealing with something on my own. I don’t got time for your problems. Gotta let that go.
KG: Do you ever feel lonely?
JP: Um, sometimes. He’ll tell you, I sit in that room, I been doing that for the last two and a half years now, I just sit in that chair and think. And I wanna sleep, but that’s not good.
HS: Seclusion and depression goes a long way. Cause the people that you think are your friends, they got a different agenda. And they pretty much take advantage of you and I get sick of it.
KG: How do you cope with that?
HS: Seclusion and depression. Go back to my tent, do puzzles, read a book. Just stay away from it.
JP: have you noticed her?
[unintelligible exchange between HS and JP]
KG: So Harold, what types of barriers do you feel you face as a previously homeless veteran and a potentially homeless veteran in the future? You talk about returning to your tent life. What kinds of barriers do you think you face?
HS: Alcoholism, that’s the bottom line. That’s my problem. Other than that, I’m good to go. Personally, I don’t really give a flying fuck about what people freaking think of me because at the end of the day, I gotta go to bed with me and I gotta get up with me. So, what everybody else feels, family betrayal and all this other freaking crap, I have on person in my life that I can rely on 100%, and that’s my sister in Pennsylvania.
[another unintelligible exchange between HS and Other]
KG: How often do you see your sister?
HS: I don’t. Since I moved here to Richmond, I haven’t seen her. Cause I got stuck with the alcoholism up there and she didn’t wanna have me in the house. I had to beat feet and leave.
KG: James, do you feel like there are any barriers that you face now towards whatever goals you may have for the future?
JP: No, I’m going to classes right now for alcoholism and my goals is to finish this and go to ASPAB (?) to get my license back. Other than that, I try to be strong. I ain’t that strong, cause I still drink. But I have support. It’s almost negative support, I got her, I got Paula, I got Yvonne, that kinda guide me to where I’m going. It help guide me to where I’m going. I try to slow it down and I have, but they don’t realize, but they are helpful.
Other: are you serious? They?
Other: I thought we were a pain in the butt the past few days. I’m just teasing.
JP: And Frank across the way. They’re all helpful.
KG: What do you think civilians particularly [phone rings]
[JP takes phone call]
HS: She’s probably trying to confirm if she [KG] showed up.
KG: So what do you think civilians particularly don’t know about the experience of veterans and homeless veterans in particular and what do you think they should know?
HS: Comradery. Army unites people. Civilians don’t even know that. They should teach it in school. They really should. To look out for each other. It’s all a backstabbing people. I’m getting mine, fuck you, and bye bye.
KG: Why do you think that many vets become homeless? It’s almost what people would call an epidemic at this point.
HS: We seclude ourselves. You know what I mean. And we’re not particularly understood cause we do some strange stuff. If you go into my campsite, I got freaking early warning devices. You know what I said earlier. Civilians just don’t understand the comradery of soldiers being trained, brainwashed, going into a situation they know nothing about and take orders to do that. And then boom. That’s what happens.
JP: That was her. She just wanted to make sure you [KG] were here.
KG: I just asked Harold, but why do you think vets become homeless?
JP: Certain things come into their life. Sometimes things come into their life that’s just unexplainable, just happens. Then I was living with the lady and she died, I couldn’t take over the apartment. So I had nowhere to go. I became homeless. I been going to overflow and this and that, I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. 22 years in the service and I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. And I had the money to do something, but I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was like what is going on here. I kept strong, just like Harold, and made it through it. And now look where I’m at. And I really don’t wanna be here too much longer.
KG: Where do you want to go? What is your next step?
JP: I wanna get my own house, which I only had two of them prior to this when I was in the military. This has been a blessing, to be able to rebound. That’s what I look at, I’m rebounding and taking advantage of that. Cause, I don’t know if I told her about it, if you come back from overseas to an empty house, that’s something to deal with. Everything go. [unintelligible] and I’m okay. I’m living every day as another day to be stronger, to do what I gotta do.
HS: As far as the United States Army goes, our motto is, drive on with a hard on. Get up, get it done, go to bed.
JP: I was army and navy, so [laughs]
HS: Well, you lost something between the Army and Navy thing [laughs]
KG: Harold, where do you see yourself going? Do you have any goals for the future?
HS: Yeah, I wanna get back to my life. That I had. I mean, before all this menagerie freaking set in. I mean, my life ended in 2006, you know with jail, homelessness, but up until then I had my daughter, my son. I mean my daughter confides in me, but my son is still stuck on mom. He’s still in college, five years later, trying to get his masters degree in computer science or whatever and yeah. A little place I can call my own. Build my own house, on the top of a hill, and just live. Or not.
KG: This is kind of an odd question, but how to do either of you feel when people offer you charity?
JP: I don’t like it.
HS: nope. It has an ulterior motive.
KG: Are there specific instances that you remember that stand out to you?
HS: Yeah, the Firm (?) Foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They used me to create occupational construction. We got a conservation building at the foot of Peters Mountain, where we did all the shingles, and they turned around and fired me, and burnt me, after I did a $7-8k estimate. And I was supposed to get, and Bruce was supposed to get, $26.50 an hour to train four other people. And then they switched up the contract and now they’re being investigated by the federal government. So keep that in mind, stay away from the Firm (?) Foundation.
Other: I’m gonna take mom (?) her dish back.
[unintelligible dish conversation]
JP: I just put the water in it.
KG: James, are there any specific instances where people tried to offer you charity?
JP: No, I offer other people charity. I get kind of a guilty feeling sometimes if I see someone standing out on the corner, and I walk by. And if I have the means to provide, I might get a few steps, what am I gonna do with this? Probably buy a beer or something later. And I’ll take it back to them. To see the smile on their face, even though it might be fake. Cause they might go round the corner and get in a Mercedes.
HS: Domestic terrorism. Drugs.
JP: But that’s what I do.
KG: Do you feel the need to give back because you were once in that position?
JP: Yes. Yeah. Exactly. Yes.
KG: For both of you, what are you most proud of in your life?
HS: My son.
KG: Can you elaborate a little bit?
HS: I know his conception date was December 28, right after Christmas, in 1988, I think it was. And he was born 9/9/90. Yeah, that’s my proudest achievement.
KG: How about you, James?
JP: Doing what I’m doing to move forward, cause I’ve been procrastinating for many years. And I had the means to do everything I needed to do, but I’m actually doing it.
KG: Yeah, that’s awesome.
JP: I got a grandson now, I’m happy. Being in this environment, cause it took a minute. I had to go do some cobblestones, but now I’m in a situation like this and I’m happy. And everything that’s in here that you see, I pay for. I don’t have to rent it. I just pay for it. The other money that used to be used, was washed out. But now I’m good, I’m happy. I even bought the stuff for him when he moved in so they could watch TV in here.
HS: Yeah, the antenna.
JP: Yeah, so they can watch TV. Cause I got TV in my room. I’m actually comfortable. I know there’s a few things I need to do, like finish this course that I’m going through right now, and another course that I need to go through to get my drivers license. And then we’ll be aight.
HS: So then you’re at the mercy of the system, once again.
JP: Yeah, well.
HS: Rules are rules.
JP: Well, I put myself in it, I need to get myself out.
KG: For both of you, is there anything that you regret?
JP: Ooh, that’s a loaded gun right there.
HS: I regret the first time I drank a beer, at age 9. Well yeah, my mom, I told you, she was illiterate, traveling me around the freaking bars and stuff, and my first job was actually a shoe-shining kit, that my grandfather bought me, so I can follow him around the bars and make a quarter here, a quarter there. Yeah I regret that day. Other than that, nope. I’m sliding through life, taking it as it comes.
JP: I regret my second wife. I did her wrong. And she was the best thing for me. But this has been since 1993, and we still talk. But I regret what I did to her.
KG: Is there anything else either of you would like to share about your experience, either in the military or as a veteran, or struggling with homelessness?
JP: homelessness was a beast. I mean, us being in the military, homelessness was something else. Something to experience. When you have to struggle, and live in the cold, live on concrete at times, and have to walk to get slips to go to certain places. That was something else. And then you have family members that put you out, knowing you ain’t got nowhere to go. And sleeping in cars, sleeping in trucks or whatever, that hits you. You wake up the next morning, knowing you need to do what you need to do to provide for yourself, you don’t have no rest, you’re tired, hungry. That gets you. And you feel like you wanna do something to somebody, or even do something to yourself, but you gotta pick yourself up and say I’m stronger than this. My grandmother put me out and then now she’s saying you got the time you think you can come over and stay with me for a little while. But how do I respond to that?
HS: Go. Go with a smile. That’s what my people told me when I was in a foster home. When your mother comes to you, even though she abandoned you, just go. Cause it’s gonna make her feel worse, cause you’re there, and that’s the glory of it. And that’s who it was.
JP: I’m sorry, I can’t get that feeling. I was trying to, but I can’t get that feeling. I know she getting ready to be 90, but. Okay. Alright. Talk to me. Help me on this one. Cause I got a good place now. I’m alright. I was in the street for a minute, for a while, and then I found a good place.
KG: Anything else you’d like to share, Harold?
HS: Yeah, plug Alison! Yes, I think she was an intern when I first met her. Yep.
KG: And what organization?
HS: Wounded Warriors, through Liberation Family Services. Well she got me into transitional housing for VA, cause I wouldn’t go into shelters.
KG: Yeah, I’m going to the transitional housing there.
HS: Even though the drama was still there, we still had one thing in common. Any other freaking, no, that’s why I chose a [unintelligible]
KG: Cool. And if y’all don’t have anything else, I don’t, that would conclude our interview. Well, thank you guys.