When Andrew Anderson joined the Marines in 2005 and eventually was deployed to Iraq, his buddies from the Metropolis Rugby Football Club were there for him, sending him off with a signed ball and promises to keep in touch while he was overseas.
“It was a very tough deployment for our unit,” said Anderson. “I lost five good friends. I have friends who have taken their lives when they got home. I saw individuals get kicked out of the Marines for using drugs and alcohol to help them cope.”
When Anderson got home in 2009, safe but not exactly sound, he saw it as an opportunity to catch up on his partying and a way to put the war behind him. It was one of his pals from the rugby club who saw him slipping away and spoke up.
“Dude, you are drinking a lot more since you got home,” his friend told him.
“I didn’t even notice,” Anderson said. “I had a bad bout with alcohol and I didn’t even notice. I justified it by thinking I had missed out on all the good times.”
When they played rugby in college, rugby players were known to love a party, Anderson said. So when a fellow rugby player thought he had problems, he listened.
Anderson got help from the Veterans Administration social services programs, which he lauds. With the help of family — and the extended family of the rugby club — Anderson got back on his feet, got his degree and now works on employment issues with Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis. His goal is to get his master’s degree in social work and become a therapist, working with troubled vets at the VA.
So when club member Joe Kiley came up with the idea to raise funds for homeless vets, “I was all in,” said Anderson.
Metropolis teamed up with their sponsor, Kieran’s Irish Pub and St. Stephen’s Human Services for a benefit at the bar on Aug. 27. Donations and part of the sales receipts will be targeted to the needs of specific homeless veterans. The funds may go to buy a newly homeless vet socks and underwear or a sleeping bag, for example, or it may go to pay the initial rent of a vet who is moving into an apartment with the help of St. Stephen’s after a stint of homelessness.
Kiley said he got inspired to target homeless vets by watching a program about actor Gary Sinise (he played Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump”), whose foundation builds homes for them. “He said that if everyone in their local communities sought out veterans, and helped them with the problems they face, the problems facing veterans across the country would go away,” Kiley recalls. “It was a really cool statement and it made me think.”
Kiley saw a presentation on homelessness from St. Stephen’s Monica Nilsson at his workplace, and approached her about what the club could do for them. Kieran’s jumped on board as a sponsor. Kiley said there are also a number of veterans in the club, and members know what some of them have been through.
“We’ve all known guys who were down and out; we’ve all known guys who became homeless,” Kiley said.
The benefit for metro-area vets is called “Who’s Your Metroman?” It’s a bit of an inside joke with the club, which has a tradition of giving tiny plastic soldiers as good luck charms, which they call Metromen.
Marik Armstrong deals exclusively with veterans for St. Stephen’s, hitting the streets to talk to panhandlers and people sleeping in camps or shelters. His goal is to make a personal connection to find out what is keeping a veteran homeless. It’s something Armstrong knows about first hand as a vet of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and as a former homeless vet.
“A lot of them are Vietnam and post-Vietnam veterans,” said Armstrong. “That is something I did not expect. Some of the younger guys have more options” while the older vets have worn out their welcomes with family and friends. He works with vets who have less than honorable discharges (but not dishonorable discharges), which long ago damaged their job prospects.
“Some of them are chemically dependent or mentally ill, but a lot of them aren’t,” Armstrong said. “They just have an inability to take their military skills and apply them to civilian life.”
Asked if he could have been one of those guys who fell through the cracks, Anderson didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” he said. “No doubt. I damn well could have.”
“I definitely know what it’s like to come home and struggle,” said Anderson. “I was lucky enough to have a large support system with my family and my good friends in the rugby club. A lot of vets don’t have that kind of support.”
The event is free and open to the public. Money will be raised through donations, raffles and an auction. Kieran’s, 85 N. 6th St., Minneapolis, 6:00-11:00 p.m.