Matt Renner: Returning Home Homeless
Returning Home Homeless
Former Hospital Corpsman Kevin Bartolata spent four years and eight months in the military. When he decided to leave, he found himself alone and with few options. He soon became hopeless and homeless, sleeping in a park in San Francisco. Through sheer persistence and help from veterans organizations, he was able to pull himself out of his desperate situation and find his way.
This is his story.
Kevin Bartolata was eighteen and had just graduated from high school in 2000. His father, his closest role model, advised him to enlist to give his life direction and to help prepare him for adulthood.
"If you can't figure out what to do after high school, join up. At least you'll come out with money to pay for college afterwards and then you can figure out whatever you want to do. You have to find yourself a good stepping stone," Bartolata's father told him.
These words resonated with Bartolata and he acted upon them. He joined the Navy and decided to become a corpsman. Corpsmen are trained medical specialists who serve in naval hospitals, aboard ships or on the battlefield with the Marine Corps. Bartolata was told that becoming a corpsman would translate easily into a good job in the medical field when his six-year contract with the military ended.
He was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where he worked in the US Naval Hospital. During his deployment, and just two months after the September 11, 2001, attacks, his father died prematurely at age 50. This loss was a severe blow to Bartolata and remains an open wound.
One year after the US invasion, Bartolata was deployed to Iraq. He arrived at Al-Taqaddum Air Force Base in March of 2004. He was separated from his original company and put in with a new group of unfamiliar faces.
"I ended up with a company of folks I didn't really know. There was a lack of trust because we hadn't trained together and I had all new superiors."
However, Bartolata was considered lucky. He worked within the relatively safe Air Force base while other Corpsman were embedded with Marine units in combat zones.
Bartolata and the other hospital staff felt that they owed a debt to the soldiers who were getting shot at by snipers and targeted with improvised bombs. Bartolata said that he was constantly "on," making sure that he was fully prepared at every moment to respond to the situation and to do his job to the best of his ability.
"Everyday it was like 'I need to know everything I'm supposed to know, do everything that I am supposed to be doing the right way because I'm going to help save people's lives. They're out there getting shot at and I'm in the base waiting for them to come in. And if they don't make it out, I don't want to feel like I didn't do everything I could.'"
His Surgical Shock Trauma Team received casualties directly from the battlefield. After preliminary field treatment by medics on the front lines, soldiers were brought by helicopter to the base, where Bartolata and his team would receive them and try to stabilize them. His team treated wounded soldiers from Najaf, Ramadi and Fallujah, three of the most dangerous areas for US forces in Iraq.
The triage process through which doctors would decide who was worth trying to save stuck with Bartolata. "It was really difficult to figure out the triage because it was backwards. Here in the civilian world, you would triage with the worst person going directly into surgery and the walking wounded being seen last. If we knew the person had a minimal chance of making it, we would just let them go. They would be labeled 'expected.' When we knew they were going to die, there was no reason to waste supplies. It was my job to make them comfortable. It was a logistical thing; it's how the military functions."
While the pragmatic military approach to triage might have been the only option in a combat zone, it is clear that Bartolata wishes there had been a way to try to revive every wounded soldier. His voice became more clear and took on a new intensity when he talked about performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to artificially pump oxygen to the brains of soldiers who were near death, as if he had momentarily been transported back to those critical minutes inside his Humvee, shuttling wounded from helicopters to the surgical unit.
"A lot of guys died, basically. By the time they were checking in with us, many were either killed in action or beyond repair. We were the receiving center ... we saw anywhere from two or three casualties a day, up to eight at a time. I carried that with me a lot when I got out because not everybody made it."
The experience was one that Bartolata has just recently begun confronting. He said that he took all the traumatic moments, the entire reality of the situation, and pushed it back "into a small, dark closet" in his mind. This coping mechanism allowed him to stay focused while in the war zone; however, it was a temporary fix.
Around July 2004, Bartolata was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety ailment common to military veterans that can manifest in different ways. Bartolata's condition resulted in insomnia and depression. However, the "military mentality" kept him from seeking treatment for nearly three years.
"It was like being labeled a shit bag in the military. If you went to the psychiatric ward, people said 'oh wow ... why couldn't I think of that? That would have gotten me out of work too.' It was viewed as a cop out."
Bartolata returned from Iraq in October 2004. After one month of leave, he was assigned to a medical surgical ward at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, California, a placement usually reserved for inexperienced corpsmen and those in training. Bartolata said the assignment felt like a "slap in the face," after his assignment in Iraq. He felt prepared for the responsibility of a leadership position where he could better share his experience and help train fellow corpsmen for deployment.
While he grew to value working with the Vietnam veterans he attended to at the facility, he was somewhat demoralized by the bad placement. "It was a step backwards. I didn't enjoy my time like I thought I would. I had clashes with the leadership." Bartolata began to look forward to leaving the Navy and rejoining the civilian world. He began moonlighting at a private hospital, working twelve-hour shifts on his days off from the naval hospital to save money and to prepare himself for his transition.
During his service, Bartolata earned enough money to put a down payment on a new Acura sports car. He had solid credit and his military paycheck covered the monthly payments.
He officially left the Navy on August 25, 2005. Six years after joining at the age of eighteen, Bartolata was excited about celebrating his upcoming twenty-fourth birthday with friends in Los Angeles. However, this celebration was tainted by the beginning of what would become a downward spiral.
Days later, his car, his prized possession, broke down on the highway. Because Bartolata had made alterations to the vehicle, the warranty was void and the dealership wanted $10,000 to replace the engine. Without his car, Bartolata could not commute to work. When he began to miss shifts, he could no longer afford car payments. The dealership repossessed the vehicle and Bartolata's credit rating was ruined.
After losing his car, Bartolata spent the next two years semi-homeless and in search of employment, sometimes staying with family members and other times on the street.
Bartolata kept his homelessness hidden, ashamed of his situation and practically hopeless for his future. A close cousin of his let him sleep at his house during the day, so Bartolata would spend the night on the streets of San Francisco. He walked around the downtown area, appearing to have a destination. But in reality he was just pretending to have somewhere to go, disguising the fact that he was homeless while killing time.
When his cousin's house was not an option, Bartolata spent time sleeping in Crocker-Amazon park in South San Francisco. "I was sleeping in the park for three to four months. I'd wear a sweatshirt, a jacket and two pairs of pants to stay warm. The sprinklers would come on at two in the morning.... I had to keep moving because if the cops saw me, they'd harass the hell out of me."
Sometimes he would ride the bus around town along with other homeless people. "The same driver drove the same late-night bus every night and it had the same passengers in wheelchairs. They'd be seat-belted in. It was the same people every night. They'd sleep in the bus because it was too cold outside. It was like 'Holy shit. I am one of these guys ... sort of.'"
Downtrodden, Bartolata sometimes contemplated committing suicide. "Many days and nights I thought about ending my own life, but could never get myself to do it. I lost my father to diabetes and I could not let him down by doing something like that."
Support from one man who served with him helped to keep him going. Paul Daniel Rodriguez, a fellow Navy corpsman from his unit, spoke with him and offered him an outlet. Rodriguez even offered to have Bartolata come to Houston to stay with him. Bartolata declined because he had no way to get there.
In the face of a bleak future, a part of Bartolata remained determined to lift himself out of this dark place. One night, he looked around at the homeless men on the bus and thought to himself, "What makes me different from these guys? I don't have a disability, I'm pretty smart. What do I need to do to make things happen?"
While using his cousin's computer to browse the internet in search of a job, a classified ad posted on Craigslist.org caught Bartolata's attention. The Veterans Administration (VA) was seeking veterans with PTSD for a research experiment. Bartolata had been participating in medical trials to earn money for sometime. He was qualified for the study, and began what would turn out to be a life-changing enterprise.
During the study, doctors at the Fort Miley VA Medical Center in San Francisco would give the test subjects a common antibiotic used to fight tuberculosis called D-Cycloserine. Then the subjects would participate in counseling sessions and discuss their traumatic experiences. The experiment was intended to measure the effect the antibiotic would have on veterans who suffer from PTSD. In other experiments, the drug helped patients talk about their fears more openly and helped them to process and come to terms with the psychological damage they had endured.
The sixteen-week sessions, combined with the support of VA staff members, helped to get Bartolata back on track. The VA put him in touch with a veterans assistance organization called Swords to Plowshares, a leading provider of emergency housing, job training, legal assistance and case management for veterans.
Swords to Plowshares got him off the street for one month by housing him in a residence hotel. Bartolata jumped at the opportunity and set out to find a job. He got a haircut, put on slacks, a tie and his Navy pea coat, and started lining up interviews.
Despite his medical training, Bartolata did not receive any official certification through the Navy. However, his skills were an asset and he was able, after three interviews, to find a job as a medical technician.
For the past six months, Bartolata has been off the street, working full time and beginning to heal his invisible wounds.
"Now that I have the basics: food, shelter, clothing, transportation, to live and sustain myself, I've been looking to dig up all that old stuff. I've been on a journey to try to find out what is hidden in my past, in the memories that I have of Iraq."
One of the most important aspects of his healing has been talking face to face with other veterans. A organization called Vets 4 Vets has been working to bring young veterans together to share their stories and to support each other.
According to Bartolata, the group setting helps combat the vicious loneliness veterans returning from war often feel. "When you get released into the civilian world, it is a different world, different rules, different everything. You get out here and you find that you don't have a purpose anymore. My purpose was to save lives. Now my purpose is undefined. Not being with military people was the hardest thing."
This Truthout interview was the first time Kevin Bartolata had shared the story of his life since leaving the Navy.
"It bothered me to talk about it initially, but having more people understand, knowing that people are being informed about what happens to veterans when they get out, I think that helps me out more in the long run," Bartolata said, adding, "at this point I don't think there is anything that I wouldn't talk about."
Editor's Note: In marking the fifth year of the US occupation of Iraq, Truthout will be profiling veterans who have served in Iraq, have returned to the US and who are now trying to adjust to life at home. View ongoing coverage of their stories in our special section, "Life After Iraq." - sg/TO