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After Mike Sand returned home from Vietnam in the early '70s, his dad took him to the local VFW Post. The old man had been a commander in World War II, and now that his son had served overseas, it was time to join the other vets at the hall.
"When I came home, my dad, you know — 'You gotta come in and jump into all this stuff,'" Sand recalls. He found a room full of grizzled old guys, "with their Eisenhower jackets and their brush haircuts" who didn't like this kid with the shaggy hair and the long beard, looking like all the other damn hippies out there.
"Some of the World War II guys were like, 'You've got to clean up your act,' and I just wanted to get on with my life. I didn't feel like I was accepted there."
Sand is an original member of Detroit's Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter Nine, founded for guys like him coming home to welcomes like that.
"Basically, you came home and they said hide your uniform, conform with what's going on, don't have short hair, don't look like a veteran or anything, 'cause veterans aren't very popular," Sand says. The war proved as unpopular with the older vets as it was with the public. "We weren't accepted by the traditional veterans organizations because we didn't fight in a 'real' war."
For many of his fellow soldiers, being home wasn't going so well in other ways either. "You have the dreams and all that when you come back," says Jack Lynch, 68, a Chapter Nine member since the beginning. "You wake up in the middle of the night in sweats."
That kind of complaint used to be common around here. "PTSD is a terrible thing," Sand says. "In extreme cases there's so much guilt the guy just self-destructs. We've had twice as many Vietnam vets commit suicide since the war as died over there."
To this day, Steve McDonald's family wakes him up from a distance with a broomstick. "You touch me when I'm sleeping I'll try to choke you," says the 62-year-old, chuckling. He's another early Chapter Nine member. "I got post-traumatic stress. It's funny — if the TV's blasting and the grandkids are bouncing off me I sleep like a baby, but as soon as it gets quiet, I sit right up."
When they first got home, these guys, like many other veterans, didn't want anything to do with their fellow vets, didn't want to talk about where they'd been or remember what they'd seen. But they were having problems that, it seemed, only other Vietnam vets understood.
So a few of them started getting together, reluctantly.
"The first meetings we had were, 'Where did you serve? Who were you with? I'm a bigger hero than you,' all that kind of guy stuff," Sand says. "But then we'd see a guy that really needed some help and we'd focus on that guy, and then we just started bringing them in."
Guys brought friends. Word spread. If they saw a car with the "Vietnam Vet and Proud of It" bumper sticker making the rounds back then, they'd chase the driver down and invite him to join.
The group became the Vietnam Veterans of Michigan, eventually merging with the VVA. They found an abandoned restaurant on Woodward at Temple without power or water, bought it in the late '70s with money from fundraisers, and planned to make it their headquarters.
The spot seemed ideal; many Vietnam veterans had gravitated to the Cass Corridor and its cheap housing. The vets had made a local dive bar, the Old Miami, their hangout, filling it with memorabilia they brought back from the war. "You couldn't even get a seat in the Miami back then," McDonald says. The new building would give the vets another place to get together, a better spot than a bar to talk about their experiences.
McDonald was one of them. He grew up in the Corridor, went overseas, came back and wound up living for two years in a car in an alley on the same block as his childhood home. "Probably living down here was worse than 'Nam," he says, only half-joking. "At least you could shoot back over there."
Taking hold of their new building was a battle in itself. The floors were knee-high with trash from the junkies and homeless who were nesting there. The basement was full of fetid water that had a dozen dead cats floating in it. The vets kicked out the squatters, drained the muck, hauled out the trash, put a new facade on the building.
The former inhabitants, though, wouldn't go away without a fight. "We had a guy in the building, Crazy Phil, for about a year with a 9 mm and a shotgun, trying to keep the people from trying to break in," Sand says. Still, someone fired 13 shots at the back door.
Even after they threw them out of the building, the derelicts still hung around the periphery. "Heroin addicts were robbing a woman over at that church," McDonald says, "and about five or six vets ran across the street with ball bats." They still have a video of it.
"We were cleaning up all the negative stuff that was going on around here," Sand says. "The cops would give us the thumbs-up."
There were the crack houses next door, right on Woodward, openly selling drugs. The vets eventually handled the issue themselves. "One of the guys, a Marine, had a Caterpillar tractor, he was an excavator. He brought it in on a Sunday and he bulldozed those joints out of here. And the cops go by and go, 'Thanks.'"
For years there's been an empty lot next door. Flowering trees shower the ground with red petals in the spring. The vets planted them a few years ago, with some grass and a flagpole, to mark the spot for a future memorial to Detroit veterans of all wars. It's a city-owned lot, but the vets say they had a longstanding agreement that allowed them to build a memorial there if they raised the funds.
But the city recently gave a company permission to park cars there, turning it into a mud pit after Lions and Tigers games down the street. Now their memorial project is in limbo as they get the run-around from the city on the future of the site.
Sand sees it as yet another fight to take something and make it better, as they did decades ago with the old building.
"It's just been a horrendous battle," he says. "It shouldn't be that way but it's always been that way, from the day we got drafted, till today and tomorrow when our kid comes home from Iraq and he's all jacked up. But we're gonna be there for him because we still wave our flag, we believe in this country, we give each other hope. It's just sad the city doesn't see that."
Inside though, here's no mistaking whose place this is.
They've got a little bar in the building whose walls are blanketed with hundreds of old military snapshots, posters and news clippings gone brown. It's like an exhibit to be taken in slowly, because each little thing holds volumes of meaning to whoever put it there.
There's also a meeting hall that's ringed with large, framed photos of vets with stern or sorrowful expressions, snapshots from bittersweet parades, portraits of old friends long gone.
Over the years this place has seen rallies and parades, hosted a mini-police precinct and Veterans Administration offices, reached out to the homeless veterans who still wander the neighborhood and brought in veterans coming home from recent wars. The people who started this, the ones who were initially reluctant to join, wound up staying forever and helping others who might have been lost without this place.
"Ninety percent of the people in the building here today are working, family oriented, just trying to give back," Sand says. "That's what we do."
Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.