To serve in any branch of the United States Military is of high honor. To continuously put oneself in immediate danger, oftentimes leaving family behind, is a sacrifice many of us would second guess. For this reason, we at CCETN are thankful to all veterans who have served and protected our country.
Although veterans bravely served our country in their time, there remains a link between veterans and homelessness. Did you know that on a single night in January 2019, 37,085 veterans were experiencing homelessness? 14,345 of those veterans were unsheltered. Even though the percentage of homeless veterans has decreased since 2018, even one veteran or person experiencing homeless is one too many.
Our Samaritan Place (SAM) provides shelter and support for seniors in crisis through emergency, transitional and permanent housing services. Of the nearly 45 current residents there, eight are veterans. This is the story of Mike, a very special veteran who has stolen our hearts in his short time at SAM.
James Michael Bauer (Mike) joined the Marine Corps when he was 18 years old. Enlisting was an intuitive choice for him because of his proud and long family history of military service. His father fought in the 101st Division at Battle of the Bulge. He also had two uncles, one who also fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the other who parachuted into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne during WWII.
Mike recalls training being “brutal,” but says that it was well worth it and has continued to help him throughout his life with self-discipline. When Mike enlisted, the Vietnam war was ending and he spent his first year evacuating the US embassy in Saigon, which later became known as the Fall of Saigon. Sometime after this tour Mike left the Marines to rejoin civilian life. He met his wife, and they had a beautiful baby girl in 1985. However, in 1990 he was called back into service under the First Division of 5th Marines.
He was deployed to Iraq to fight in the first Gulf War of Desert Storm. His tour was brief, but life changing. “It wasn’t even a year,” he says. “It was more like eight months. It was a blitz. We went through there and shook the whole country.”
It was this deployment that also shook Mike’s life. One day as he was riding in a convoy going through Al-Fallujah, Iraqi roadside bombs detonated and killed everyone in the first four humvees of the convoy. Mike was in the fifth. However, the impact from the blast still killed the gunner atop his humvee and broke the drivers back. Mike also suffered a serious head injury and had to have a plate inserted into his skull as well as receive an artificial left knee. While healing, Mike’s wife would send him tapes of his then five-year-old daughter, to lift his spirits. “VHS tapes were out then,” says Mike. “My wife would send them to me and that’s how I got through. That and my other Marine Corp officers looking after me and me looking after them.”
After having his procedures done at the US Army operated Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Mike was medically discharged.
Back stateside, Mike again rejoined civilian life. Him and his wife had another daughter in 1995. He also continued working the job he’d keep until retirement. Mike had worked for United States Steel his whole life. While his family remained in Alabama, their hometown, Mike was the Superintendent of a Steel Mill in Ohio. He would visit often and send money back home to his family. Mike said they were very fortunate to be able to live comfortably.
In 2013, after 38 collective years of service, Mike retired from US Steel and returned home. His wife had fallen sick and he wanted to be there when she needed him most. Unfortunately, later that year Mike’s wife died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
With his daughters now grown up, his wife gone and no job to occupy his mind- Mike’s military trauma hit him hard. Grief stricken and battling with PTSD, Mike fell into heroin use for two years. “I’m ashamed of this, but it did happen,” says Mike. “I got on heroin for two years to relieve the pain of losing my wife and dull the PTSD. I blame it on a lot of things, but it basically came down to my weakness. I was very weak at that time in my life.”
However, in 2015, Mike kicked his heroin use and began to rebuild his life. He says he kicked his drug habit “cold turkey” with the same discipline that helped him while he was in the Marine’s.
Fast forward to late 2019. Mike, now a 63-year-old retired senior renting a motel room week to week. After losing his wife, he relocated to Knoxville in search of brighter skies. Unfortunately, in a new city, alone and grieving, Mike’s mental health began to suffer again. His lack of connections also made him vulnerable. From there, his situation deteriorated quickly. Mike was robbed. Late one evening as he was returning to his motel room, he was accosted, threatened and then robbed of what little he had. The burglars took sentimental items of his wife, personal belongings, and most importantly his debit and social security cards.
He was left with nothing. With only a few days remaining in his motel stay, Mike soon fell into homelessness for the first time in his life. He was chronically homeless for six months in early 2020. He lived night to night at shelters in oftentimes cramped conditions, but thankful nonetheless. As an at-risk individual during a pandemic, Mike’s situation was even more dire.
This past August, we’re so happy Mike found his way to Samaritan Place (SAM). He was immediately met with the warmest welcome possible amid Covid-19. He received fresh clothes, three meals a day, a semi-private bedroom and a newfound haven. Since then Mike has diligently worked with case managers to help him regain access to his bank accounts, personal documents, and social security benefits. Now, three months later, Mike is beaming! “I think I’ve got it together now,” he says.
Since coming to SAM, Mike has met many friends and is quite popular! “I’ve made a lot of really good friends,” he says. “That’s the positive thing about living here. I get along with everyone and I’m not lonely anymore.” Once completely stable, Mike is planning to move into his own apartment with a friend he met at SAM! He dreams of living out his retirement happy and secure. He plans to travel to Florida and maybe even California!
Mike’s story is one of many who have found refuge at Samaritan Place. We’re honored to serve the seniors of Knoxville, especially those who are veterans and have served us by protecting our country.