Veteran Lee Friedman enjoys lunch on Veterans Day. Freidman is an HEP resident.
CLEARWATER – “We’re bringing our soldiers home, but we have to get them all the way home.” Those are words uttered by Bruce Fyfe many times in the course of a day, as he works at promoting the Homeless Emergency Project and tries to encourage other groups to help returning service personnel.
Fyfe is the chairman of the board of HEP, which recently opened a new 32-unit apartment building on Holt Avenue in Clearwater to house homeless or near-homeless veterans. He blames it on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On Veterans Day, as a prelude to opening the new facility, HEP hosted a luncheon for homeless vets. Many of them were in the throes of getting out from under drug or alcohol addiction, which Fyfe blames on PTSD and a community that has not done enough to help veterans in need.
One of those is 56-year-old Lee Friedman. He served overseas from 2001 to 2006. He’s reluctant to say exactly where he was, but he knows that when he got back, he was in need of help.
“You just can’t do it on your own,” he said. “Everyone has their reasons for why they can’t cope. I know I can only live and stay clean for today. I don’t even think about tomorrow.”
Friedman returned home to Sebring and came under the care of the VA there. With serious substance and alcohol abuse issues, he was sent to a residential treatment program at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System. After that, he was accepted as a resident with HEP, which has accommodations available other than the new apartment building in Clearwater. He has been with HEP since 2009 and is completing training to become a peer group addiction counselor. Soon he will be moving out on his own, earning a living and becoming productive again.
Not all stories end that way. In fact Bruce Fyfe got involved in HEP because of a tragic personal story involving his son, Brendan. The 24-year-old served three tours in Iraq.
“When he got home in 2008, he couldn’t even drive a car,” Fyfe said. “Every time he saw a box on the side of the road, he would think it was an IED and he couldn’t handle it. Eventually, he turned to drugs and alcohol, and in December of 2009, he died of a drug overdose.”
Fyfe said it was likely that things might have turned out differently for Brendan had there been the help of HEP back then.
Fyfe has become a vocal advocate for returning veterans.
“They sacrifice more than people understand,” he said. “When they come home with PTSD, they have lost all sense of self. We have to convince them they have real value. We have to provide them with a safe, warm place to recover.”
The 32-unit apartment building provides that, in addition to a nearby clubhouse where the veterans can meet and interact, play games, watch TV, work out and just relax as they work on their recovery.
Fyfe says the first 17 apartments are already spoken for.
“I expect all 32 will be filled within two months,” he said. “We also provide five full-time mental health specialists which they can use at any time.”
In all, HEP provides 354 beds for veterans in need, and they have so far served nearly 1,800 veterans and have served 87,000 meals. It is all part of what Bruce Fyfe says is “bringing them home all the way.”