Sad news today. A homeless vet named Mel died early this morning in Benefis Healthcare in Great Falls, Mont. He was 70 years old.
I first met Mel when he was living under a bridge over the Missouri River, literally in sight of my office at the Great Falls Tribune. I had been writing about the first Great Falls Stand Down, organized by the local Vets 4 Vets group to bring medical care and survival gear to homeless vets, and one of the vets told me about Mel.
So I walked down to his camp one day and asked permission to enter. Mel had been expecting me because his dog, Sarah, had alerted him that someone was coming. A slender man in an Army fatigue jacket with a salt-and-pepper beard and cautious eyes, Mel weighed the request for a moment, then granted permission.
It turned out the Mel and Sarah had been living in a pup tent with a fire pit on the sand bar just outside it for the past eight years. Mel had been deployed to Germany in the early ’60s and returned to find that he could never find himself again. He hid in a bottle for years until one day when he decided he didn’t like the man he saw in the mirror, so he quit drinking about 20 years ago.
A couple of cops had suggested he pitch camp under the bridge. “They knew I didn’t drink or do drugs, and they knew I wouldn’t be a bother to anyone,” he told me. “They inspected my gear and figured I wasn’t going to turn into a Popsicle. They still come by and check up on me every once in a while.”
Mel survived the brutally cold Montana winters sleeping in an extra-cold military sleeping bag with a lighter-weight bag stuffed inside it. On the coldest nights, Sarah would wiggle in with him.
But about a year later, vandals found his camp and destroyed it, ripping his tent up and throwing his gear in the river. So he got another tent, more sleeping bags and cooking gear, and he set up a new camp in the side yard of a vacant house owned by another vet in town. A fence and shrubs offered privacy, and Sarah continued to pull guard duty.
Mel and Sarah survived by Dumpster diving. His only income was the 300 or so dollars he earned a month by recycling aluminum cans. “You’d be amazed at the stuff I find that people have thrown away,” he told me. “I could have a whole bandoleer of cell phones. And the funny thing is that most of them work.”
Mel and Sarah were a familiar sight on the streets of Great Falls, so a lot of folks were saddened three or four years ago when Sarah was hit by a car and killed.
None took it harder than Mel. He was lost without his companion, but he couldn’t bring himself to adopt a new dog. It was the end of an era for him, and in many ways, the approaching end of the road.
As I was talking with friends about the new vets’ court in Great Falls a couple of weeks ago, I asked about Mel and was told he was a patient in Benefis, the local hospital. I was also told that a battle with cancer had left him not much more than skin and bone.
So I called to cheer him up and told him that I was hoping he’d be out of the hospital soon and back out on the streets and in the alleys with a new dog.
“That’s a hope,” he agreed, but there was no conviction in his voice. I had a strong feeling he’d given up.
So it was no real surprise to get a call early this morning that Mel had passed. But it was a sorrow. And it was a reminder that there are all too many vets around our country who need our help in putting their lives back together and who need our friendship for a touch of warmth in their cold and lonely lives.