The young Arthur Lute’s family uprooted with every one of his father’s military assignments from Chula Vista to Rhode Island, Oxnard to Spain. A Vietnam War combat veteran, he proudly served where and when he was needed. Arthur’s mother, however, grew tired of the instability. Eventually she left and Arthur’s father assumed the parenting chores for all four children. His military salary wasn’t enough, even with food stamps, to feed, house and clothe them all. So at age 17, Arthur received his father’s blessing to leave high school early and join the U.S. Marines to help supplement the family income. He later earned his GED.
He has this fond memory of his dad visiting him when he was in boot camp, wearing this “salad bar” of medals on his uniform, showing his serve in Vietnam, a campaign ribbon, one for national defense, good conduct, SE Asia service, marksmanship, and a SEAL trident, among others. He watched his drill sergeant and battalion commander salute his father. “The people that had been yelling at me for 12 weeks were saluting my dad, and that sure made me feel good.”
The failures of the military to care for its soldiers and their families still afflicts Arthur’s memories and his current ability to care for his own wife and children. It’s a love-hate thing.
“I know guys today, even full time military, who are on welfare,” Lute said. “Something’s not right about that.”
He spent five years in the Marines, in Recon, first Kuwait. Then Beirut in 1983. He was there when terrorists bombed the Marine compound killing 241 service personnel. He got out in 1984. Doing odd jobs, mostly landscaping, he decided to pursue his desire to be a surgeon. So he joined the Army Reserves in 1985, working as a surgical technician at a reserve hospital. He didn’t see the career path there that he’d envisioned so he spoke with a U.S. Navy recruiter.
Lute laughs as he recalls the recruiter telling him he’ll have to go through basic training and “we will break you down.” His response then was “Good Luck.” It didn’t take long before he was squad leader for 15 guys. Unfortunately he found the discipline in the Navy to be “laughable and sad” compared to what he was accustomed to in the Marines. So he decided to use his G.I. Bill for a medical education at community college, earning associates degrees in applied science and liberal arts.
Things seemed to be on track as he began training to become an EMT. Until his role caring for gunshot victims or people with head trauma triggered flashbacks to battlefield experiences. One day, after setting up a bleeding trauma patient with an i.v., Lute turned around and the patient rose up, tore out his i.v. needles and stuck Lute in the back. Years later while volunteering for FEMA in Mississippi, he stopped at a Red Cross trailer to donate blood and learned he had Hepatitis B. By then the disease had already heavily scarred his liver.
He began to withdraw.
He had trouble talking with his wife about the flashbacks and depression. He’d married his high school sweetheart, a beauty queen. Her father talked her into divorcing this taciturn veteran and into marrying someone with money, which she did, leaving Lute in even greater isolation. The added depression over not being able to see their young daughter overwhelmed him.
After a year of homelessness, he spent two years in a rehab with a veterans organization. He put his faith in someone who said they’d help him with finances, then learned the man was cheating him. He chased the guy down the street at night with a knife. Knowing what he was capable of, he wrestled himself into a phone booth, still holding the knife, and dialed 911. He told the dispatcher he was a combat veteran with PTSD and feeling violent, had a knife, capable of murder… the police arrived, took him to a psych evaluation, and was put on a 72-hour suicide watch. He was told if someone, a family member, would care for him, they’d let him go into their custody. Otherwise he’d become a ward of the state. His mother and family in San Diego scraped together money to bring him out. A nurse from the facility even walked him to the bus.
Lute lived with his mother for four months, then moved into a room at St. Vincent de Paul’s. He didn’t like it there. “I can do better on the street,” he told himself then. A veteran can make tools out of trash, they’re resourceful, he said smiling. “I’ve been to SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) School.”
After two years here, seven years in New Mexico on and off again homeless, he tried to access is VA benefits and discovered someone had screwed up his paperwork. For the next eight years he was unable to collect benefits until a savvy VA social worker in Chula Vista saw the clerical error and fixed it for him. “He’s got three DD-214s!” he heard her yell into the phone. “Yeah, I’m looking right at them!”
While he worked day jobs, his then-girlfriend was being harassed by other homeless men. They threatened to harm his mother if he didn’t step aside and let them have his girlfriend. One night as his mother walked one from work she felt anxious and called Lute to walk with her. Sure enough two of the men surprised them and Lute fought them off until the other two men showed up with weapons. He stabbed two of them with his knife, and they ran off.
Lute doesn’t have kind words for his public defender. He had to do his own research on what the charges and potential sentence could be, and what his rights were. He learned much and spoke with conviction while the prosecutor tried to pile charges on and offered him endless plea agreements. He held out for a jury trial. In the long run, he only served seven months, with three years parole. He got off paper in 2013.
About that time he met Elizabeth (Lisa), another woman who was being hounded by predatory men on the street. Her own family was steeped in military history, so she understood some of the depression, isolation and flashbacks that Lute was going through. They eventually married and had two sons, Evan, now 6, and Camden, 4, who are starting school.
Like his father before him, Lute is now a dad caring for young children on his own. Lisa’s bipolar diagnosis situation requires she live apart from the family at this time, so she has an apartment downtown near St. Vincent de Paul. She sees the children nearly every day, but it is Lute who arranges for Gateway services to care for Evan’s developmental disabilities, who makes sure Lisa makes her court appearances, who walks the children to and from school, tucks them in at 6:30 p.m. every night and worries if they’ll have enough to eat at the end of the month. “We only shop for clothes once a year at Stand Down. The kids call it the Army party.”
Thanks to a VASH housing voucher, his meager military pension is supplemented to carry the rent at their two bedroom Imperial Beach apartment. The smell from less hygienic neighbors’ apartment and the accompanying pests that crawl under the baseboards irritate him, but that is a small worry right now. Arthur is up at 6 a.m.. He gets the kids their vitamins, clothes, food, and to school by 7:40 a.m. Baths at least three nights a week. Bed by 6:30 p.m. He walks them to and from school. Ever the Marine, he smiles, “being a dad to two young boys is my new battlefield.”
Lute is relieved to have his family on medical insurance for now, but he worries about their household income meeting their expenses as the children grow and need more to eat and bigger clothing. When Cam becomes five years old soon, his federal assistance will go away.
In his dreams, he would like to buy a house for them somewhere. He wonders if he’s eligible for some assistance from the VA in that regard. “Right now, I’m buying myself existence month to month in this roach box that could burn down next month and we’d be out on the street,” he said. Then added, “As long as we have a roof that doesn’t leak I guess we’re ok.”
Lisa is outspoken about the hurdles combat veterans face trying to reenter civilian life. “How many people see their comrade’s brains as hamburger in their helmet? When you close your eyes, it’s there. I don’t think I could deal with that. That happened to Arthur. You form a bond with your comrades — a special, emotional attachment. It affects you when they are killed.”
Lute acknowledges the difficulty he deals with every day. “There are five stages of grief. Fear, Anger, Rage, Sorrow, Guilt, Resentment. You have to go through the five stages of grief in five seconds while you’re pulling the trigger. You don’t get to emotionally process it. You shove it all into the back of your head and it resurfaces later.
“If I see someone die in front of me, I don’t want to cry cuz I was told men don’t cry. But really, it’s the real man who is strong enough to cry. I think for the younger guys, it’s important to reach out sooner — put the pride on the back burner — get some help.
“When I came back, got married, a job, in Chicago, I thought I had it all together. But I ended up being taken to the VA in shackles by police cuz I threatened people. The cop drove me all the way to the VA emergency room, and waited until I was admitted to the psych ward. He didn’t have to do that. But he was a veteran and he knew.
“The second time I almost died I was standing on the ledge of my window on the seventh floor. In my mind I was on the edge of the door of a C-130 cargo plane with a parachute ready to jump. I had been on the phone with my neighbor and he knew what was going on. He called the police. The cops at the door tried to talk me down and ended up breaking the door down. One guy grabbed me around the waist and pulled me to the floor.”
Arthur had started out taking two of his newly prescribed meds. An hour later he still felt untethered and anxious so he took a few more. In all, the doctors pumped 40 pills from his stomach at the hospital. He stopped breathing at one point. They put him in a medically-induced coma for two days.
Once out of the hospital, he was back on the streets in the Chicago winter. He’d take advantage of an empty-ish street when he saw blankets in the back of someone’s car. (break the window to grab those blankets). “If it’s raining you find a construction site cuz they’ll cover the concrete with plastic tarp and you can use that tarp in the rain. He would crawl up poles or behind buildings to find electrical outlets to charge his phone.
He’s had people steal clothes he’d hidden in a bush. “People steal your only good jeans and two good shirts. I saw a guy on a bike wearing my new polo shirt that I’d paid for. I beat the crap out of him. As far as surviving on the street; a Marine is going to do better than a sailor, every time. And a Marine in Recon is going to do better than a regular Marine.
On the street, drug and alcohol use is due to peer pressure, he said. If you’re depressed and you’re around crack, it doesn’t take long to be an addict. It’s also hard to trust anyone.
“You don’t know who you can trust out there,” Lute said. “Your best friend could be the first one to flirt with your girlfriend. They prey on the women out there. They’ll get her whatever is her weakness (coca-cola, cigarettes), then tell her it’s her turn. “I supported you for two weeks, now you owe me,” is the common refrain, according to Lute.
Lisa agrees. “The homeless are always vulnerable to situations that include drugs, alcohol, criminal activity, — that leads to addiction and abuse.” She was homeless herself off and on since her mid-20s. Now 40, and a mother, she’s determined to stay off the streets. “I made a vow to never sleep on concrete again. Whatever it takes. When the boys came along we’d do everything we can to pay rent.”
At bed time, Camden likes to play “Vinny’s People.” He slips in to a pillow case and stretches out on the floor pretending to be a h homeless person settling in for the night on a downtown sidewalk. “I wanna sleep in a dumpster!” he jokes as his parents attempt to make light of all he’s seen at such a young age.
Cam has learned how good it feels to be recognized in front of the other students for his good behavior, so he’s made a lot of improvement already this year. Ever the thoughtful big brother, Evan secretly pockets snacks from his class to give to Cam after school, until his father catches him.
Leading Camden from the school yard past the paleta vendor outside they wait for Evan, then climb into the camp-painted car that always attracts attention. Racing each other up the stairs to where they quickly drink a glass of juice, the boys then head into their room and pull toys from their carefully organized and labeled bins while Arthur takes a look at the calendar to mentally prepare for the next day’s chores.