Editor’s note: Below is the text of a speech delivered May 25 by Keith Howard, Executive Director of the Liberty House, to the post-parade crowd at Veterans Park. Liberty House, in Manchester, provides sober housing for American veterans transitioning out of homelessness. We are republishing his message here because we believe it bears repeating. -CR
MANCHESTER, NH – Today we remember our military dead, those who died in battle defending our country. Each of those war dead raised his or her hand and swore an oath, a promise to every other citizen: I will die for you. Think about that. I will die for you. Life is what we live for, life is all we have, yet each fallen warrior we remember today died for me and you, and you, and you. That promise, ladies and gentlemen, is truly remarkable, for who offers death for the sake of strangers?
You heard that I am a veteran. It is true. I was no great patriot, just a dumb kid from Durham with a duty to serve my country, so I joined the Army for four years. Like all veterans, I raised my hand and offered to die for you. After my enlistment, I did many good things, but also made large and self-destructive mistakes. So large and so self-destructive that, eight years ago, I was living on the street, drinking mouthwash for the alcohol. Having reached the jumping-off point, I no longer wanted to live. I wanted to be dead. I wasn’t offering to die for you – I wanted to die for myself.
Instead of embracing death, I went to the Manchester VA medical center. I was stabilized and introduced to the group that has helped me remain sober ever since. I was a suicidal drunk, and I got the help I needed. Today, I am the luckiest man on the face of the planet. As director of Liberty House, I witness the redemption and return to health of many veterans annually. That is exciting. What is not exciting, though, is seeing the dozens of vets not prepared when the lightning strikes – the lightning that might return them to sanity and safety.
I am an alcoholic, but I am also a heroin addict and always will be. I’ve been clean for years, but I’m still just a needle away from active addiction.
Let me tell you about three Liberty House alumni, representing the certain past, the current present and the unknown future. Their stories are our stories, and each of them raised his hand to die for you and for me:
First, Ernie, a 1990s infantryman. Ernie was the first vet I brought to Liberty House three years ago. Newly clean of heroin, Ernie was a good resident, but the wreckage of his past landed him back in jail. When released, he didn’t come back to Liberty House. Instead, he returned to the arms of heroin. He is dead. He overdosed on heroin in February. His death was not for you or me. His death meant nothing.
Second, Don, an Iraq combat veteran. When I met Don 16 months ago, he was completing treatment for heroin addiction. He came to Liberty House, became involved with a support group, and began rebuilding his relationships with his children. Today, he is working full time, self-supporting and completely clean and sober. His life is filled with meaning and I am proud to call him my friend. Just Saturday he came by to help us with a construction project.
The third vet I’ll call Joe. He lived with us for two months, going to support group meetings, working full time and regaining the respect and trust of his family. Unfortunately, Joe stopped going to meetings, violated Liberty House rules and is this very second living on the street in Manchester, an active heroin addict. Just Saturday he stopped by Liberty House to help out with the project, excited about getting clean. Last night, while I was writing this speech, Joe approached a current resident on Elm Street, visibly high. The current resident, clean and sober, became emotional telling me about Joe, and the promise he is throwing away.
You know of the heroin epidemic in Manchester, all the overdoses, all the wasted promise, all the death. I see this every day – see the Ernies, the Dons and the Joes.
Joe – and he may be in this crowd right now, bumming money or cigarettes off you – faces the juncture every junkie faces. He can choose death – by overdose; by self-neglect; by violent crime. Or he can choose life and recovery, as Don and I have chosen.
I’m not a praying man, but if you are, please pray Joe and all the other Joes and Janes using heroin today, veterans or not, are offered the real choice of recovery, the choice between a life of purpose and a meaningless death. The war dead we honor today —whether from the Civil War, the World Wars or the current conflicts — didn’t just die for me and you; they died for the Joes and Janes addicted today. Let us honor our dead by creating hope for our living.