Homeless veteran reflects on life, service

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Roland Lewis Miller is one of the 19,000 homeless veterans in California. From 1968 to 1992, his life was dedicated to the United States Army.

Over the course of a 24-year career he served in Vietnam and Grenada.

He has battle wounds to prove it.

The 62-year-old pushes a wheelchair full of every personal item he owns down the streets of Stockton each day, including the backpack he used when he was a lieutenant.

“Homeless vet needs help,” a sign attached to the chair reads.

When night comes, Miller pitches his tent in the same place. Police no longer hound him.

“They realized that I’m harmless. I’m not going to hurt anybody,” he said.

Soon, his presence may no longer form a threat thanks to the proposal of a homeless “bill of rights.”

The bill by assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) aims to take away the criminal aspect of being homeless. It cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act will assist Miller; under the act he cannot be denied employment because of his housing status.

Miller said he has placed dozens of applications to potential employers in the past week.

“I just need some work. If I don’t know I’ll learn. I catch on fast,” he said.

Miller, a former sniper, said he is a decorated veteran with a Bronze Star and is a two-time Purple Heart recipient.

He also served three tours in Vietnam, and was wounded in an unlikely area.

“We got overrun and had to go undercover … I was horizontal diving into a foxhole, got grazed by an AK [ak-47 bullet] and lost half my [butt] cheek. I didn’t even know I was hit,” he said.

In the U.S. invasion of Grenada, a hand grenade severely damaged his right arm.

Three months out of combat, Miller had an altercation with a fellow lieutenant that ended his military career.

“I made a stupid mistake,” he said.

“‘Cause of all the years and decorations that I have, they couldn’t dishonorably discharge me,” he added.

Miller’s powerful war-story telling voice starts to tremble when speaking of his second wife.

Tears swell in his eyes when describing her death. She died in his arms due to cancer.

“I didn’t recover after. It beat me up so bad, I almost lost the will to live,” Miller said.

The couple had two sons together. Miller said both are currently serving in the Marines.

Miller keeps in contact with them by cell phone.

He and his sons rotate payment for the monthly phone bill.

“Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean they don’t love me. They love me to death, but right now they have their own families to worry about,” he said.

Due to the discharge, he no longer has a pension.

He has access to full medical and dental coverage, but no income supporting him.

“There’s so many of us out here that turn to drugs, turn to hurting people, robberies. I refuse, I will not take the easy way out,” Miller said.

He’s sought help at the Stockton Shelter for the Homeless.

He didn’t consider the experience positive, specifically because of the close-quarters with others.

“How’d you like to be shoulder to shoulder … you don’t even know the man laying next to you, smells … It’s disgusting,” he said.

Although he is a combat veteran, he is not exempt from the horrifying crimes against the homeless. He’s been threatened with guns, and verbally assaulted. Miller recalls profanity-laced taunts.

“I have more positive encounters than I do negative, but the positive ones aren’t as toll taking as the negatives are. The negative stick with you, and make you hold a grudge,” he said.

By the end of this month, Miller would like homelessness to be part of his past.

He hopes all the applications he’s turned in will result in a permanent job.

For Miller, the path to an easier life can be accomplished if the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights moves further as a bill.

“I love this country, there’s no other place in the world I’d rather live. This country can be good to everybody, we have to be good to it,” Miller said.