By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Horror, grief, rage and despair, in proportions that can’t be imagined. And with nobody to talk to. Unless a person has seen combat, has seen their best friend die at their side, it can’t be understood.
That’s why 1,800 military veterans sleep on the streets of Kansas City on any given night, attorney and veteran’s advocate Art Fillmore told over 100 people gathered for the groundbreaking of the St. Michael’s Veterans Center Sept. 25.
“Combat is ugly, violent, and the absolute worst state of the human condition,” Fillmore said on that bright September morning. “But we are taught to be tough, to suck it up. If our best friend is killed, we still complete the mission.”
Mental health professionals call it “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.” Fillmore calls it a national scandal that so many veterans return home and don’t know where to turn for help — if help is available to them at all.
He knows all about the nightmares that he still has to this day from his service in the U.S. Army as a “forward observer,” going into the jungles of Vietnam to find enemy positions and call in air and artillery strikes.
“They haunt you for the rest of your life unless you get treatment,” Fillmore said.
“Soon, his thoughts are no longer his own. He tries to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. He loses his job. He loses his family. He loses his home. He loses his dignity,” Fillmore said.
St. Michael’s Veterans Center is designed to be a one-stop place for homeless veterans to rebuild their lives.
A project launched by Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph three years ago, the center will provide housing and a comprehensive list of services on a 24-acre site near Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard and Leeds Road, near the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center on Kansas City’s east side.
The $11 million first phase will include 58 apartments. When all three phases are completed, the campus will include another 122 apartments, plus space for case management, job training, mentoring services, and coordination of physical and mental health treatment.
“It’s about time,” said Johnnie Cheatom, who served on the Catholic Charities board that brought the idea from the drawing board to groundbreaking.
Vice commander of the American Legion Fifth District, Cheatom wore on his blue blazer three medals earned in his 25 years with the U.S. Army, service medals from combat in Korea and Vietnam, and a Bronze Star earned in Vietnam.
“I got shot and run over by a truck,” was all Cheatom would say about his medal for valor. At home, he said, are 15 more medals, including the Purple Heart.
“This will help veterans with PTSD, any of them who need psychiatric help or medical help. A lot of veterans have trouble sleeping at night,” he said.
And in case there is any notion that homeless veterans choose the life on the streets they are living, guess again, said Bob Bartlett, a veteran of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, and who now volunteers with Casa Vet Institute, an agency that helps homeless military veterans find the help they need.
“It’s the most tiring, awful life you can imagine,” said Bartlett, who spent years on the streets himself before finding a hand up at Casa Vet.
“What we do is people with problems come to us and we send them to agencies that can help,” said Mike Shelton, a U.S. Navy veteran and Casa Vet volunteer.
“Sometimes, they come in and all they want to do is talk,” Shelton said. “They can talk to us, because we understand. When they use key words from their military service, we know what they are saying.”
Bishop Robert W. Finn blessed the site before he joined several representatives from the public/private partnership that will build and operate St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center.
“It is a great honor for us to be participating in his project,” he said.
Dan Powers, who became CEO of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph this summer, noted that this is just one more way that Catholic Charities will continue to serve needs, as it has done in the diocese for more than 125 years.
“We can all celebrate today what is just a beginning,” Powers said.
“This project brings together the faith community and government. It joins the non-profit and the for-profit world. It brings us all together to help our heroes in need,” he said.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James also said it not only shows the heart of Kansas City, but it shows the rest of the nation what can be done and what must be done.
“If you can’t love Kansas City right now, I don’t know when you can,” he said.
“This will be a place where veterans can go to build and rebuild their lives,” James said. “It will be the support, love and care that will happen within these walls that will be truly inspiring. That is what makes this more than a structure. It makes it a place to love and to grow.”
But with the project will come a responsibility to homeless veterans across the United States, James said.
“If we can set the standard for how veterans should be treated, we should take that model to other cities,” James said.
And that standard is this, the mayor said: “You served and protected this country. Now this city is going to serve and protect you.”