For the better part of four decades, Eugene Morris’ home was in the streets.
And while life over the last several years has become considerably better for the 65-year-old Ogden veteran, he says he’s never too far from the edge.
To keep from falling over it, Morris says a constant vigilance is required. He says every day he’s “lucky enough to wake up” and he renews the commitment he made to himself: stay sober, help others.
The diminutive and kind-natured Morris grew up in Amherst County, Virginia, a place he says “you might miss if you’re passing through and blink your eye.”
He had a relatively normal childhood, but his coming of age coincided with America’s longest war. When he was 19, he volunteered to serve in the , attending boot camp at the Corps’ Recruit Depot Parris Island inSouth Carolina.
It was 1969 when he joined the Marines. A few weeks after boot camp, he was sent to Vietnam.
Morris says many factors contributed to a decades-long battle with homelessness, but the origins of it can be traced to the battlefields he stomped through in Southeast Asia.
“I volunteered to go to Vietnam,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait to get drafted. I didn’t want to go through that anticipation, so I just said I’d go.
“I knew I was going to fight over there,” he said. “But what I didn’t know, what I wasn’t prepared for, is what I would see.”
Though he doesn’t like to talk about the specifics, Morris said the combat he experienced in Vietnam not only changed his life, it rewired his mind.
“I’ll put it this way, they had this buddy program thing where you went over there with friends,” Morris said. “I went over there with five of my buddies from high school and only two of us came back.”
Early in his deployment, Morris saw one of his friends killed by a sniper bullet. He saw many other terrors too, all of which contributed to a constant state of alert — a condition that didn’t end with his departure from Vietnam.
“It completely changed my mentality,” Morris said of his time in combat. “I just saw too many awful things. It really messed me up psychologically. It was real bad. And that trauma stays with you. It’s something you really never can put behind you.”
When he returned to the states in 1972, Morris said he came home a broken man. Compounding the psychological damage he suffered was the reception he got upon returning from the war.
“It was pretty easy to see I wasn’t very popular,” he said. “Getting called ‘baby killer,’ for someone like me, that was hard. I was fragile.”
Shortly after coming home, Morris began to self-medicate, using drugs and alcohol to temporarily conquer the demons in his head. Things spiraled out of control quickly.
For nearly 40 years after Vietnam, Morris said his life was “mostly hell.” He was badly addicted to drugs, using “anything and everything I could get a hold of.” He was involved in failed relationships. He couldn’t hold a job. There were brief periods of light, when he’d stay clean and keep a job for an extended period of time. But those were essentially just intermissions to the abyss, moments that left as quickly as they came.
“I was trying to self-destruct,” Morris said. “Anything I could do to hide the pain for a while, I would do it.”
After Vietnam, Morris eventually relocated to the Washington, D.C. area and moved around there for a while. For a small time, he kept off drugs and alcohol and even got married.
“That was a pretty good time for me,” he said. “I had a pretty long stretch of being clean, but I got married to the wrong girl. She was a street girl and I was hoping to change her. I really wanted to be normal, to live a normal life, but it seemed impossible.”
In 1989, Morris moved to Ogden to link up with a step brother that was living in the area. But the cross-country change of scenery didn’t change Morris’ ways. The transience continued.
So did the drugs. So did the alcohol.
While in Ogden, a girlfriend left him, a close friend died of liver cancer and several other friends and acquaintances died — such was life in the void, Morris said. He tried rehab a few times, but sobriety never seemed to stick. He spent a lot of time in jail, prison and hospitals.
“When something bad happened in my life, I always went back to drugs,” he said. “I’d sabotage whatever little progress I was making. I chose to be homeless, that’s what it really came down to.”
Eventually, that choice created a weariness that inspired change.
“After a while, that life gets old,” Morris said. “Living underneath the bridge, in the bushes, some hallway, a stairwell — wherever you can rest your head. That gets hard.”
In 2008, Morris formed a bond with Terry Schow, who at the time served as director of the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs. A Vietnam combat veteran himself, Schow vouched for Morris at a sentencing hearing related to drug charges. Morris was again facing prison time, but Schow, seeing untapped potential in the embattled Morris, pleaded with a judge to allow him to enter rehab again instead of prison.
“There was something about Eugene that you just believed in,” Schow said. “He was always a very polite fellow, gentle and respectful. But there was something else. He’d obviously been through a lot, (but) you could just see, if given the right opportunity, this guy could really make something of his life.”
Schow’s testimony swayed the judge and Morris entered a drug and alcohol treatment program at the First Step House in Salt Lake City. He completed rehab and followed it with an 18-month transitional program at the Ogden Homeless Veterans Fellowship that helps homeless veterans find permanent housing.
With the help of Schow, the First Step House, the Ogden HVF and several others, Morris has spent the last six years living in his own home — a quaint rambler he rents on 28th Street. He gets help paying his rent from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, which provides assistance to low-income families to be able to afford safe and sanitary housing.
Morris said the help he’s received in his life has inspired him to do the same for others. He’s worked the phones at the VA Crisis Line, and he’s currently working to become certified as a peer support specialist with the VA.
“I’ve finally figured out this is the best high you can get,” he said of his new life. “And that’s what I’m trying to tell the veterans who are in situations as bad as mine was, or worse. You wanna get high? Live the straight life. That’s the best high you can get.”
You can reach reporter Mitch Shaw at email@example.com or at 801-625-4233. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23 or like him on Facebook.
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