New home marks new start for S.F. veterans

For all the new furniture, freshly painted walls and welcoming staff, there’s one thing that Joseph Jackson loves more than anything else about his first real home in four years.

The noise.

It’s outside his window in downtown San Francisco, all the time — the grinding and honking of cars on the street, the clanking of machinery, the murmur of voices from the sidewalk. It’s a song of comfort, like the sound of the sea and heavy engines that Jackson loved so well in the military, back in the days before his life dissolved into homelessness and despair.

“Hear that?” he said, cocking an ear at the window of his apartment in the newly opened 250 Kearny St. housing complex for formerly homeless veterans. “When I was in the Army, if it was quiet, something was wrong. When it’s noisy, everything’s all right.”

He grinned as a truck accelerated in the lanes on Kearny. “Right now,” he said, “everything is all right.”

It’s been more than a decade since he’s been able to say that.

With the help of Season of Sharing, which subsidized his up-front rental costs and bought his bedroom furniture — as it plans to do for all residents of the 130-room complex — Jackson was able to move into his Kearny apartment in early December and set down roots as he works toward a bachelor’s degree in business.

Sober for years

Decades of drunkenness gave way to sobriety for him four years ago, but it was the proverbial long road leading there — a road that wound through tours of duty in Desert Storm, a divorce that left him bereft and a battle with the bottle that stripped him to his essence.

“I just about drank myself to death,” he said, shaking his head at the memory like a man who just survived a car crash. “I’m amazed I’m alive today.”

When he looks back over what went right and wrong in his life, the central element for everything is the 20 years he spent in the service. Those years infused how he went off the rails, and how he helped rescue himself.

It started out nobly enough. Raised in Vallejo, Jackson enlisted at 19 with an itch to serve his country. By the time he mustered out as a chief warrant officer in 2003, he’d become a whiz with what the Army calls watercraft — troop landing vessels, cargo boats, tugboats and the like.

He ran maintenance and oversight operations in the Middle East and during hurricane rescues in Haiti and Hawaii, and wound up as a Rear Detachment Commander, based in Virginia, supervising more than 100 troops and 16 vessels.

He also picked up a wife, three sons — and a nasty taste for liquor along the way. He became what one of his counselors called “the rather stereotypical hardworking, hard-drinking Army professional.”

“That was Joe, all right,” said Eric Nichols of the Swords to Plowshares Transitional Housing Treasure Island program, where Jackson finally landed just before scoring his apartment on Kearny. “Doing his job well, but using alcohol to cope with day-to-day stress.”

Post-Army life, after years of separation on deployments, soon resulted in divorce and then disconnection from his sons as he moved from Victorville in San Bernardino County to the Bay Area to be nearer to relatives. With his Army pension going toward child support and spousal payments, he spiraled further into drinking and wound up bunking with his father — a utility line specialist, and another hardworking alcoholic — in Hayward. Then came another hammer blow.

Hit hard

His dad died in 2010 of the drinker’s curse, liver failure. Without a father to stay with while he was sorting out his next steps, Jackson spiraled to the bottom.

“I started couch-surfing with friends and relatives everywhere, and was drinking a half-gallon of brandy a day,” he said. “I normally weigh 185 pounds, but I stopped eating and got down to 127 pounds.”

It all hit a head one August night in 2010 when he started throwing up blood while staying with his uncle. The paramedics who rushed over were so shocked “that one said, ‘Next time we have to come for you, we’re going to just be putting a sheet over your head and not bother to put on the sirens,’ because I’d be dead,” Jackson said.

That was it. He checked himself into a substance abuse rehab program at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Menlo Park. He came out dry for good, and after staying with friends and relatives again, he moved into the two-year vocational rehab Swords to Plowshares program on Treasure Island.

It was tough for Jackson, a proudly independent man, to take the help, he said. But in the end, as with so many others who rise above their troubles, it took great strength for him to accept the hand offered to him — and then to capitalize on it. The Kearny Street complex is a mostly federally funded project, with a cluster of counselors on site to help the vets with everything they need to keep stable, from job help to therapy.

“I needed an operating base for my next steps, and this is it,” Jackson said.

“Life is a night-and-day difference for my dad from a decade ago,” said Jackson’s oldest son, 26-year-old Joe Jackson Jr., a musician in San Francisco. “He needed to take the time to sit with himself and figure out what he really liked in life, how to discover himself after all those years of being in the Army, raising a family and then being away from the family.

“Now that he’s crashed and burned and pulled through, he’s doing wonderfully. It’s great to see.”

The very room he lives in reflects the new order in his life. Shoes are lined precisely against the wall in order of use, with boots first, then sneakers, then slippers. Socks are rolled up tightly, Army regulation style. The floor is clean enough to eat on.

What’s still missing is a full dresser and other furniture yet to be delivered, and the stereo he has in storage along with his beloved fish tanks. Jackson’s fond of rainbow-colored cichlid fish, and he’ll buy a batch when the tanks come in. The fish are festive, bright, hopeful — like his life today.

Counselor Nichols sees full speed ahead.

“Pain tends to be a motivator, and Joe’s had that pain,” he said. “It’s been a fight, but he’s winning. He is totally set up to make his dreams come through.”

Career plans

The next dream up ahead for Jackson is finishing community college, then heading to San Francisco State University next fall for that business degree. With his experience in management and in running watercraft operations, he reckons all he needs is a sheepskin to put the skills to civilian use.

“I see a lot of people in my shoes, and they move ahead but they fall back,” he said as he headed downstairs to catch a bus for the latest in a continual flurry of appointments he has for school, vocation studies and counseling. “That’s not me. A lot of things had to fall into place to get me here, and they did.

“It’s serendipity. It’s good. It’s all good.”


Kevin Fagan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. He can be reached by e-mail at

The original article can be found here