He was one of them.
A member of a community the young Marine never envisioned after serving his country.
Yet, U.S. Marine Damon Machado has shared the fate of more than 40,000 veterans nationwide who on any given night have no shelter.
Homelessness is a “neighborhood” in which no one wants to live. But in that community of veterans, there are men and women, each with a unique story — patriots who have served with heart.
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“I remember walking on watch with an Iraqi or Kuwaiti guard and kids coming up to you and asking for change – for monies, rubles,” Damon said, recalling indelible moments as a 19-year-old Marine aboard the USS Tarawa during the Persian Gulf War.
“You’re basically standing next to their house and it’s just rubble. You ask, ‘Where are your parents?’ They point over to a burnt-out station wagon with bodies still in it,” he said, his eyes betraying emotion. “And then me, just giving them all the money I had.”
Nightmares haunted him. Memories followed him.
Struggling to return to a normal life after his discharge, Damon suffered the psychological effects of the war as well as childhood physical abuse from a stepdad.
“I was on and off homeless and couldn’t hold a job,” Damon said, recalling how his drinking spun out of control when he arrived home to hear the shocking news that his marriage had been annulled while at sea.
But in typical military fashion – and with few resources – he privately and valiantly fought his personal battles, struggling to rise above his past and focus more on what he could give back to society. When the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (The Moving Wall) was in Hesperia, Calif., he stepped up to honor the military who had paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“I played Taps for the opening ceremonies,” Damon said, reflecting on what it meant to stand in dress uniform and play his bugle for these war heroes – and his own father, who died when Damon was only 3. “My dad’s name is on the wall and it was tough. He did two tours in Vietnam and got the Silver Star posthumously.”
Soldiers who were fortunate to return from the Vietnam War often suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a term that in the 1970s replaced “shell shock.” After Damon served in Operation Desert Storm, his PTSD went undiagnosed until 2015, when the 45-year-old was officially declared to have the disorder.
Still, the effects of PTSD can make the lifelong journey difficult, even with government resources. Unexpected “life moments” can also add further challenges.
When it became imperative to help with the care of his dying father-in-law, Damon and his wife, Yvette – his “rock”—with their six children made a difficult move from California to Washington state. But the stress of crowded living conditions under one roof and financial strain took their toll on him. Eventually, he chose homelessness – living out of his 2001 GMC Jimmy – to relieve some of the pressure, allowing more space for his family at his in-law’s Benton City home.
No job. Alone. Cold weather approaching.
A bleak forecast for this Marine.
But the gloom lifted when providential circumstances intervened.
“I was fishing for my next meal on the Columbia River, right on the Columbia Park Trail,” Damon said, remembering the moment when life took an upturn. “The Young Marines troop was drilling at the Kiwanis building, and so I walked up there and played the national anthem, and they all stood at attention.”
That patriotic act brought Damon front and center with a few community “angels” – people who saw that helping this veteran was an opportunity, not a burden.
“They obviously care about veterans here in Washington,” Damon said. “Ever since I got here, there’s so much love.”
It was love in action when the Tri-City Young Marines’ leader realized the bugle player was homeless and living in his car. He immediately contacted another Marine leader who is actively involved in a local Marine Corps League. They that put Damon in touch with one more “angel.”
William Sweet is a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War era who has founded the nonprofit Washington Christian Ministry in his retirement. One by one, and with volunteer help, he rebuilds donated recreational vehicles that are in turn given to vetted homeless veterans in the local community.
“It’s night and day from living in my car, and it gives my wife peace of mind that I’m safe,” Damon said, glancing toward the motorhome parked in his campground space, a Marine dress uniform hanging in the window. “At least I have a place to cook, and that saves me money. And one of the county commissioners knocked the camping fee down to only $5 a day so I could afford it.”
But this proud Marine isn’t one to just take and not give back. He’s about task and purpose.
Besides volunteering to play Taps at military funerals and helping his wife with family matters, he is also lending a hand elsewhere as he waits to begin vocational training.
“I’m helping ‘Pastor’ Sweet fix up a donated RV we just got last week. And we’re looking for another homeless veteran,” Damon said thoughtfully as he pondered the difference the RV had made for him. “It’s a ‘house’ – and it has electricity!”
A place to call home.
Lucy Note: Since this interview, Damon and his family have relocated to a four-bedroom apartment with assistance from the Blue Mountain Action Council, a private, nonprofit, multipurpose agency. “I’m sure your prayers were a factor,” Damon said in a text to me.