Bruce Voorhees stood in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, put his fingers on the names of two fallen Marine comrades and wept.
It was the culmination of a months-long pilgrimage across the country. The idea of the road trip was to pay tribute to a pair of friends who never came home half a century ago.
It was the right thing to do, he said.
But the way he financed the road trip was the wrong thing to do. He put everything on his credit card. Doing that is a long tunnel with no light at the end. A Vietnam vet can relate to that.
When Voorhees, 75, arrived back in Sonoma County, the credit cards bills began arriving, too.
He knocked on the door of a house he had been sharing with a buddy, but while Voorhees had been gone, the buddy had invited a girlfriend to move in. Voorhees was the odd man out. He packed up his stuff and left.
At first he lived in modest motel rooms, then in even more modest motel rooms. He went through every nickel and still owed a small fortune to the bank, plus the 19% interest on the unpaid credit card balance that never seems to give a fellow a break.
“I hit a financial wall,” he said. “I whacked out my credit card. I was in all kinds of trouble.”
For a while, Voorhees lived in his 17-year-old car. He was no stranger to barely scraping by. The son of an alcoholic New York City bus driver, Voorhees said he grew up poor and stayed that way.
After sleeping in his car took too much of a toll, he managed to find a spot in a Rohnert Park trailer park a few years ago. He used his last few bucks to put a down payment on a used trailer.
Voorhees receives his Social Security benefit and military pension at the beginning of the month. About that same time, the rent is due, the trailer payment is due, the utilities are due, and the minimum payment on the never-ending five-figure credit card debt is due.
“Almost everything is gone for the rest of the month,” Voorhees said. “And that makes you start looking over your shoulder.”
The last time the money ran out, Voorhees found himself in danger of getting booted from the trailer park. Then a counselor at the Salvation Army in Santa Rosa told him about the Season of Sharing Fund. The fund works year-round to prevent homelessness and hunger in the nine-county Bay Area. All donations go directly to help people in need, with administrative costs covered by The Chronicle and the Walter and Evelyn Haas Jr. Fund.
The Season of Sharing grant covered three months’ back rent and let Voorhees stay put.
His caseworker, Allison Turner, said helping Voorhees dig himself out from the hole he was in was the right thing to do.
“He’s a charming, charismatic veteran who is obviously still living with the stress of what he went through,” she said. “But he’s given so much to all of us. He’s kind, and comforting, and has a gift for gab. He can relate to anyone.”
Voorhees, a friendly man who’s a good conversationalist and a good hugger, put his “gift for gab” to good use. He worked for decades as a counselor to fellow veterans, as a salesman in a sporting goods store, as a grief counselor for an undertaker, and as a volunteer firefighter.
He now volunteers at the Salvation Army and puts on a Santa suit during the holidays, because he more or less looks the part, and presides over parties and toy giveaways. The Salvation Army counselors help him cope with the post-traumatic stress disorder and Agent Orange symptoms and residual substance abuse problems he brought back from Vietnam half a century ago.
Despite the emotional scars from the war, he knows it could have been much worse. When he starts feeling sorry for himself, he touches a spot above his left temple. It’s a wound he got while he was patrolling the fence around the Vietnam airfield where he was stationed. His squad was ambushed, one friend was killed, and Voorhees was struck by a spent round.
“I was the lucky one,” he said.
Voorhees is trying to make the right financial choices from here on out, Turner said.
“I can’t say for sure, but I think he’ll be able to handle his finances from now on,” Turner said.
Now he’s looking for part-time work at a home improvement store. An amateur musician, he’s finding the time and the desire again to sing “You Belong to Me” and other jazz standards with friends in his deep tenor.
“I can’t tell you the difference that Season of Sharing made,” he said. “When my house of cards was falling in and I needed help, the help was there.”
Help your Bay Area neighbors today by donating to the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund: https://seasonofsharing.org/donate-now/. All administrative expenses are covered by the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and the San Francisco Chronicle so 100% of your tax-deductible donation helps Bay Area residents in need.