As a veteran of the Vietnam War, Paul Nemenz has occasionally felt like a lost soul.
He proudly fought for his country, and says he would do it again “in a heartbeat,” even though his fellow Americans haven't exactly done such a bang-up job returning the favor.
“There were no parades for us. They spat in our face,” Paul said as he recounted the horror on the battlefield as well as the homefront upon the troops' return.
Both experiences helped chart the course his life would take. Paul became depressed, and he later turned to alcohol.
For the past several years, Paul's been living on the streets of Washington, finding shelter in doorways, alleys and bushes. He's slept in the gazebo at Courthouse Square, he's “camped out” with friends, bare tree limbs offering no protection from the frigid elements, and he's stayed a few winter nights at the City Mission.
“You don't easily forget seeing people falling and dying around you. There's a very real chance of your being killed. We were boys, we were kids. I don't think I was so afraid, ever,” said Paul, his voice cracking with emotion as tears freely flowed down his clean-shaven cheeks.
Paul was a corpsman in the U.S. Navy from 1968 to 1972. He trained with Navy SEALs and served as a battlefield paramedic, stabilizing injured soldiers until they could be flown from the battlefield.
“Those of us who were not wounded physically were wounded mentally. A lot of us still carry those scars to this day,” Paul said. “There are a lot of men today, vets like myself, who are out there on the street. It's like their country forgot about them.”
Although Paul is very candid about his life, he would not reveal how he became homeless, except to say, “I made a mistake, a poor judgment. It was a costly one.”
Paul was born Dec. 10, 1947, in Wilkinsburg, the youngest of three children. Paul said his father was a lawyer, and his mother was a homemaker.
“I grew up in a very loving, caring family,” he said. “Mom was always there. I could walk through the door, and there she would be. No matter what the hour, if it was dark, or I was sick, mom always came. I remember her running her fingers through her hair, and how she'd kiss me on the cheek. I loved my dad, but I adored my mother.”
Paul has two older sisters, but he wasn't extremely close with either one. The oldest was 14 years old when Paul was born and had already established herself as fairly independent. There is seven years' difference between Paul and his other sister.
When Paul was a senior in high school, the family moved to a house they had built in Upper St. Clair. He played football and baseball. He loved his football coach, who taught him about life and the importance of playing as a team. His coach made such an impression that Paul has always wanted to help youth.
“I want to be a positive influence in their lives, leave them with a good feeling about themselves,” Paul said. “I would like to tell them to be true to yourself. Just being you is OK. That's what somebody did for me. Somebody took the time for me. That's what's so important: just to listen, just to care about someone. It means so much to listen.”
Not long after Paul returned from the war, his father died. He was 67 years old. It was Good Friday, and the family had planned to celebrate Easter. Instead, they buried Andrew Nemenz.
“I started to drink after my dad died. I thought it was an answer to dealing with my pain,” Paul said.
He moved out of his apartment and in with his mother. “I did what I felt was the right thing to do. Family comes first. You always put your family first,” he said.
Then his mother suffered a stroke, and she was moved to an assisted living facility in Bridgeville. Paul and his sisters sold the family's house, and Paul moved to South Fayette to be closer to his mother.
In 1996, after his mother died, Paul headed to Washington.
“When my mom died, it pushed me over the edge,” he said. “Depression became a real issue for me at that point.”
Paul worked a variety of odd jobs for a while, but now he spends most of his time with friends and at the Circle Center in Washington, a consumer-operated drop-in center for adults with mental illness.
He also has found great comfort in writing poetry, and his work speaks volumes about his life and personality. He has participated in the Poetry and Fine Art Show sponsored by AMI Inc. of Washington-Greene counties, a full-service rehabilitation center licensed by the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. The event is designed, Paul said, “to show people we're people like everyone else. We laugh. We cry. We have talents. We have gifts. We just have issues.”
He captured first place for his poem “Hands.”
“It's just an outlet for me, just to see if I could do it,” he said. “Everything I write is just writing what comes from the heart. God gives me the inspiration. I just put it on paper.”
Despite the streets he's traveled, Paul feels fortunate to be where he is today. He has no permanent housing, but he's quite content. He recently scored what he calls a “huge victory” when he obtained medical insurance, and he is surrounded by a faithful group of friends and homeless companions.
“I never thought I'd be in this situation. It is difficult at times. But because of this place (Circle Center), WeCare and my faith, there is hope,” he said. “I have a great circle of friends. I have my WeCare family. I love you all to death. I thank God every day I have you, just knowing that you're here, just knowing that you care.
“There are people I love and who love me back. That gives me hope. It spurs me on. I lost the battle, but I ain't lost the war. Victory is at hand.”