Picture of despair

Keith Lester of Washington holds a piece of artwork he did of the former YWCA which was inhabited for a while by the homeless. Lester, at one time, was homeless himself.

“Join the Navy and see the world” has long been a recruiter's enticement, but it doesn't always lead to exotic lands.

Keith Lester, 58, attended Bethany (W.Va.) College and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but his dream of reaching Europe didn't pan out.

Serving as what would be called, in the civilian health care system, a licensed practical nurse, Lester was known as a petty officer third-class when he was assigned to the hospital of a U.S. Army medical center in Texas. It's not that unusual, he said, to serve in one branch of the military but find oneself, for whatever reason, at another branch's base. “All the checks come from the Department of Defense,” he said.

After his honorable discharge, he found a job at a Wheeling, W.Va., hospital and worked about a year until a recession hit in the early 1990s. He said his lack of seniority worked against him, and he found himself without a job.

It wasn't a good time to try to find work anywhere in the Ohio Valley, so, thinking it might be time to change careers, he enrolled in a community college to learn to become a chemistry lab technician.

But the chemical plants that lined both sides of the Ohio River weren't hiring. The steel industry, with laboratories to monitor quality control, were similarly impacted.

“Mills were laying off,” Lester said while puffing on a cigarette one warm fall day at the outdoor smoker's pavilion across the alley from the City Mission headquarters on West Wheeling Street in Washington. Although he suffers from emphysema, he said he consumes about three-quarters of a pack of cigarettes per day.

A few men sitting nearby that day got into an argument over a perceived slight, but Lester was an island of calm, recalling in a soft-spoken, measured voice his student days at Bethany, where his late father, Dr. Hiram J. Lester, taught religious studies after a stint as an instructor in Greek language at Yale Divinity School.

He continued to tell what he called “a brief history of the past 25 years or so,” about being strapped for cash and living at the Wheeling YMCA until he headed for Pennsylvania, where he found work roofing, laying concrete and laboring in construction in Uniontown.

He apologized “if the chronology isn't entirely correct. I'm just going on my brain.”

He thought he'd relocate east, but his bus ticket to Frederick, Md., was stolen, so instead he headed west, disembarking in Washington. He said he worked for the grounds-

keeping department of Washington & Jefferson College, in various capacities at the City Mission, and at a local thrift store.

As he tells it, when he suffered a broken wrist, he was unable to work and he could no longer pay his rent. So he went back to the mission, where he said his current job has been in the kitchen as part of a program that employs older workers. The City Mission, he said, pays the rent for his efficiency apartment.

Lester sketches, but art school is beyond his reach financially. He is especially proud of his pen-and-ink drawing of the architecturally significant YWCA building on West Maiden Street.

“Leaving the military is probably the biggest mistake in my life,” said Lester, who would have liked to have qualified for a pension. “If I had stayed for a full 20-year hitch I'd be eligible.”

Lester said he's tried unsuccessfully to access various VA benefits.

Gina Jackson, a national spokeswoman for the VA in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email, “All veterans who served in wartime or peacetime and were discharged from active military service, under other than dishonorable conditions, are eligible for certain benefits from the VA.”

The process is a complicated one because each benefit carries its own criteria for eligibility, so the Washington County office of veterans' affairs on the seventh floor of Courthouse Square (724-228-6865), aids applicants in filling out or checking paperwork.

“Examples might include the GI Bill, disability compensation, home loans or burials. Things like disabilty compensation would require a disability on the part of the veteran, whereas a home loan or GI Bill would not,” Jackson continued.

“Also, if this veteran is homeless, we have special programs specifically to address that. Ending veteran homelessness is one of the VA's top priorities.”

Jackson noted that a veteran (or a friend or family member of a veteran) can call 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838) to be connected with the VA's services to overcome or prevent homelessness.

There is more information on those programs at the website http://www.va.gov/homeless/.

Jackson also offered as a resource the blog VAntage Point, http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/586/busting-myths-about-va-health-care/.

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