To hear him tell it, 76-year-old Bobbie King’s life has been filled with abandonment and deceit.
Once a Vietnam War-era U.S. Army serviceman, the Detroiter is now a homeless sufferer of mental and physical illness, unable to receive health care he says he deserves.
“I don’t have the means to get out,” said King, who shuffles from place to place on the city’s east side after falling victim to identity fraud and subsequently losing his Detroit apartment in 2018. “I feel helpless. I try to lean on my faith, but at times, it’s overwhelming.”
King, who served in the Army from 1962 to 1965, says he thought he never had to worry about health care after leaving the military.
Homeless Detroit Vet in need of healthcare finds faith in serving others
U.S. veteran Bobbie King needs healthcare and wants to restore his standing with the Veterans Affairs office so he can heal from the past.
Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press
Years after returning to civilian life, however, he was shocked to learn he was discharged under conditions other than honorable for reasons he bitterly disputes. A spokesperson for the John. D Dingell VA Medical Center told the Free Press that King is ineligible for VA health care due to his discharge status.
Now frail and in need of medical attention, King can’t afford his medication, let alone surgery, he said.
“I love this country, man, but it’s brought me so much pain,” King said. “I’m willing to kneel down to get medical help. I don’t feel like I should have to kneel down for something I worked for and am entitled to.”
King’s saga is being championed by a group of congregants and clerics who have found unity at The Ecumenical Catholic Church at the Cathedral of St. Anthony on Detroit’s east side.
Morgan Meis, a clergyman at the Cathedral of St. Anthony, is helping King navigate the VA and military system they both have called “complex” and “confusing” in hopes to upgrade King’s discharge status so he can receive care.
King suffers from diabetes, surgery-needing knees, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high blood pressure and loss of hearing from operating heavy artillery while in the Army. He has an extensive history of mental health issues, according to his medical records.
King is bald, but that remains unknown until he takes off the U.S. Army veteran cap he wears almost every day. He dons glasses that are missing a lens and bandaged with tape. His fatigue is audible in his deep, molasses-like voice and visible in his cane-assisted gait. Occasionally, however, bursts of youth and excitement jolt through him, most apparent when he bursts in laughter, which is sometimes followed by a brief coughing fit.
A Kentucky native, King moved to Detroit after he says he was tricked into signing a military separation of service form in 1965, when he was “just a young, dumb country boy” who enlisted in the Army as a teen without finishing high school.
“The information I should have been given was never provided to me. I didn’t know what I was signing. To this day, it ruined my life. They took my life. They destroyed me,” King said over the phone, charged with emotion and hyperventilating, telling a Free Press reporter he couldn’t continue the interview that day because he was overwhelmingly upset.
The reason King believes he was not honorably discharged stems from a fight he got into in 1964 while stationed at Fort Hood. He says his company sergeant drunkenly groped and forcefully touched King’s wife in a sexual manner and that King was defending her. It was an incident he remembers “like it was yesterday.”
King didn’t know he was less than honorably discharged until he tried to purchase a car from a shop that gave veterans discounts a few years after leaving the military. When the salesman looked over King’s discharge forms, he told King, “Get out of here,” King recalls.
King then surveyed the document himself and saw the entry that stated his discharge status and reason: “Unfitness, frequent involvement in incidents of a discreditable nature with civil or military authorities.”
“I was devastated when I saw that,” he said. “I was gung-ho when I was in the Army. I was willing to do anything to protect this country and defend its values. When I saw I wasn’t honorably discharged, I felt fooled — all that I put in was not returned to me.”
Operation Upgrade Discharge Status
A VA spokesperson said King received care years ago on a humanitarian basis despite his discharge status but wouldn’t disclose when. King says the humanitarian care was for mental health issues that led to drug abuse decades ago.
But now his physical health has deteriorated, and King is trying to find a swift and certain path to receiving VA care.
David Sonenshine, senior staff attorney at the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington D.C., told the Free Press King may be able to receive VA care eventually, but the process will likely take months and its success cannot be guaranteed.
Meis, the cleric, said a VA employee at the department’s Detroit Regional Office told him and King that there would be no way forward in upgrading King’s discharge status without locating his former platoon members — if they’re still alive, that is — and having them testify to King’s side of the story.
They then would attach King’s comrades’ testimonies to an application for correction of military record, which is reviewed by a U.S. Army board.
The clergyman and homeless veteran have been trying to locate King’s former platoon members through social media for months, but King doesn’t recall all their real names — just nicknames from their days in the Army.
“It’s been over 50 years, so obviously this is proving rather difficult,” King said.
It’s not necessary for King to send his company members’ written testimonies to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, Sonenshine said, but it wouldn’t hurt his case.
“Any evidence that puts him in a better light increases his chances of upgrading his status,” Sonenshine said.
There is no surefire way for King to become eligible to receive care, Sonenshine said, but there are different paths he could pursue. One way is through the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.
Achieving a status upgrade through military review boards recently became easier under certain conditions following the publication of The Wilkie Memo.
A 2018 Department of Defense directive, The Wilkie Memo, signed by then-Under Secretary of Defense Robert Wilkie, calls for military review boards to “rehabilitate to the greatest extent possible, and to favor second chances in which individuals have paid for their misdeeds.”
Although “relief is generally more appropriate for nonviolent offenses than for violent offenses,” the memo states, boards are asked to consider applicants’ character, age, health, whether their misconduct may have been youthful indiscretion and whether they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or have experienced sexual assault, among other factors.
Another option King could pursue is applying for a discharge status upgrade exclusively though the VA. The option is less desirable, as the discharge status upgrade would be honorable for VA purposes only, Sonenshine said, but may still allow King to receive VA care.
When the Free Press contacted the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center to inquire about what King should do to receive care, a spokesperson told the newspaper he should pursue an exclusive VA status upgrade, differing from what he and Meis say they were told to do by VA employees at the VA Detroit Regional Office, who suggested King go through a military review board.
“I just want this taken care of before I leave life. Not just for health care, but for the principle,” King said. “This is all so confusing, and without the help I’m getting, I could have never figured it out by myself. No chance.”
King’s glass ceiling upon returning to civilian life was sky-high, he said. It was the 1960s. He was black, less than honorably discharged and suffering from crippling mental health issues.
Under a box in King’s 1965 discharge papers that asked for a statement of his present health, he wrote, “I am in good health other than my nerves and emotional state.”
His medical report from 1965 also states he suffered from depression, nervousness, trouble sleeping, and other mental and physical ailments.
King’s position as a homeless former servicemember isn’t unique. About 37,000 veterans experienced homelessness in 2019 — roughly 8% of all homeless adults — according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report.
“I don’t like the way I’m living — it’s substandard. My stuff is stolen from me on a daily basis, and I don’t have a lot of stuff,” King said.
When King moved to Detroit after leaving the military, he worked for the city as a truck driver and refuse collector for decades before retiring, he said. The work wasn’t lucrative, but it paid the bills.
The 76-year-old now occasionally picks up odd jobs, such as in January, when he swept and mopped the floor of a convenience store on Detroit’s east side to make a few bucks.
King calls the 2018 eviction from his apartment on Woodward and State Fair avenues “the best and worst thing” that’s ever happened to him.
Worst because he hasn’t consistently slept in the same place for more than a few months.
Best because he became involved with The Ecumenical Catholic Church at the Cathedral of St. Anthony, where he met Meis and Karl Rodig, bishop of The Ecumenical Catholic Church, who sold his Florida home in 2010 to buy the then-deteriorating Cathedral of St. Anthony.
The diversity of congregates is evident during Sunday service at the historic edifice.
Some clergypersons at the Cathedral of St. Anthony are homosexual, the bishop who leads Mass is a German immigrant and some churchgoers are Jewish. Standing alongside men in sharp suits and women in elegant dresses Sunday morning are homeless community members.
After falling on rough times, King’s friend told him about the church and introduced him to Rodig — a tall, smiley, slender man with a full head of mostly white hair who speaks impeccable English with a German accent.
“(Rodig) told me to come to Mass in 2018 and I told him I’m not Catholic. He laughed and said, ‘You think we care? There’s no survey at the door,” King recalled after a January Sunday Mass while an organ played and church bells chimed. “I told him I’d show up, and you know, you can’t lie to a man of God.
“I’ve come to Mass nearly every week since my first time.”
King later met Meis, whom King called a “godsend.”
“What (Meis) is doing for me, I don’t think anyone else in the world would do,” King said.
Meis has a calming presence. His shadowy eye sockets hold blue-gray eyes that make direct contact with whom he engages in conversation with, unless he is thinking of what to say, which, in that case, he introspectively stares off into the distance and carefully chooses his words. He doesn’t seek attention, and when he is asked questions about himself, he humbly diverts the discussion toward King’s situation.
Meis drives King to church when he is unable to make the mile walk or can’t get a ride. He helps King find meals, clothes and necessary resources for survival when King can’t himself. But that’s commonplace for clerics.
The more laborious and unique task Meis is carrying out is corresponding with the VA on behalf of King.
“The more I talked to Mr. King, the more I felt his commitment to the church, and that made me feel like I should be committed to him,” Meis said. “I could tell what I was doing was very special to him, and that made me feel good. Our relationship is mutual, and it’s something I think we both cherish.”
Meis doesn’t have unlimited resources at his disposal. He helps other deprived people who come through the church, and he possesses limited time and money.
“If you look around, you can see we don’t have a lot of congregates, which means we don’t have a lot of funds,” Meis said. “We really stretch our dollars to keep up with the maintenance of this very old building and to feed people, clothe people, help them find work and get government paperwork done.
“It’s very grassroots — we’re able to do what we do based on donations and the generosity of others.”
Despite King’s hardships and the fact he is homeless himself, King volunteers four days a week for The NOAH Project — a Detroit-based homeless support nonprofit — where he carries administrative duties.
Things move fast at NOAH. People seeking assistance are in and out of the bustling building as King directs them where to go while fielding phone calls.
“I want to give something back,” King said. “It’s gratifying helping people, especially homeless people, because I know how they feel.”
Left in darkness
As the lights turned off in the heater-less Cathedral of St. Anthony following a January Mass, and only King and two Free Press journalists were left in the sanctuary, King approached a meters-tall depiction of Jesus nailed to a cross.
“To be that cruel to someone who brought so much good to the world — it’s hard for me to process,” King said, approaching the statue, his voice echoing around the silent, dark and cold cathedral. He continued, getting emotional, pointing at the statue with his cane, “This gives me hope. It reminds me to stay resilient and continue to humbly do good, no matter what injustice comes my way.”
Due to lack of VA care, King said he had to overcome challenges alone, which drives many veterans to commit suicide.
The VA “should be ashamed” of itself for disregarding veterans’ health care needs, King said.
“I’m not alone in this situation. What they’re doing is unacceptable,” King said. “I’m trying to avoid feelings that a lot of veterans in similar positions to me have: hating the country they served and risked their lives for.”
King may be in darkness right now, but as Bishop Kimo Keawe said in his sermon during a January Mass at the Cathedral of St. Anthony, “There are times in our lives when we are left in darkness…but we must know there is someone up there able to turn the lights back on, brighter than ever.”
Contact Omar Abdel-Baqui: 313-222-2514 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarabdelb