Veterans still struggling to get their bearings

An encounter in Hollywood shows how drugs, homelessness and depression keep former members of the military from moving forward with their lives.

My plan was to check in on Greg Valentini, who fought for the U.S. Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But I couldn't get into his locked apartment building Monday afternoon in Hollywood. He hadn't answered my phone calls or emails, and it was too hot to wait on the street.

Just as I was about to give up on him, a young man approached on foot, stood under Valentini's window and gave a yell.

"Greg!" called the man, whose name is Jacob Alatriste.

"You think he's in there?" I asked.

"Yes," said Alatriste, who was carrying a baseball jersey he'd picked up from the dry cleaners as a favor for his friend. "I was in there with him earlier. But he's got the air conditioner on, and he probably can't hear anything."

Alatriste knew that I'd written several columns about Valentini, who crashed hard after leaving the military and ended up living in a tent next to Long Beach Airport. When Valentini got caught stealing to feed a drug habit, he landed in a residential recovery program called the Hollywood Center, run by Volunteers of America for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Alatriste, himself a veteran of the Iraq war, had gone through the same program. Now, like Valentini, he's still trying to get his bearings.

But it hasn't been easy. Alatriste, 28, told me how he'd just tangled with some tough guys at a nearby sober-living house and gotten himself kicked out.

"So where are you going to live?" I asked.

"I guess I'm going to be homeless for a while," said Alatriste, who told me he has a job but hasn't saved enough to get a place.

As we talked, two more of Valentini's friends approached. Robert Rissman, 24, who fought in Iraq, is currently in the Hollywood Center program. He was with his pregnant fiancee, Marilyn Flores, 19, and I realized that even if Valentini never opened the door, I was still getting a look at the challenges of returning to civilian life after deployment.

Rissman was in a jam, partly of his own making and partly because bureaucracy can easily get in the way of good intentions. He had completed the program and gotten a coveted housing voucher, but it lapsed before he could save up enough money to meet his part of the rent. He went back to the Hollywood Center, but his next application for a voucher was rejected, so now he's contemplating his next move.

"I'm just a veteran's fiancee," Flores said.

I asked where she was living.

"In my car," she said, pointing up the street to a 1999 Isuzu, and explaining how she curls up in the back of the vehicle at night, despite being more than six months pregnant. "Sometimes I couch surf."

Rissman wants to finish school and get a good job, he said, but at the moment all he's got is a 50% disability check for service-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

Flores would like to find a decent studio apartment near MacArthur Park, which she thinks they could get for $700 a month, but Rissman said he doubted that.

"Because you're depressed," she said.

"No, because I've been disappointed many times," he answered.

As we spoke, I noted that the U.S. flag was flying from the porch of a sweet little cottage across the street, perhaps in early celebration of the Fourth of July.

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