Wednesday, April 30, 2003

A second chance

Helping others is his salvation


Mark Smith is a tall, dark man, with an eye patch, scars on his face and arms, and a no-nonsense stare.

At 56, he's a veteran of the drug wars. Been "drugging and drinking for 42 years," he says.

He lost an eye, got a pin in his arm, lost a finger, got a steel plate in his head and he's won numerous cuts and stabs.

In 1997, after a drug deal went bad, some of his rivals took a claw hammer to him. He survived.

Now he says he fights a new, tougher battle each day of his life. Smith, a Vietnam vet, fights his addictions.

His fortification: a little-known rehab program at the Veterans Affairs Department Nursing Home and Domiciliary Service in Fort Thomas.

At its Compensated Work Therapy program, nearly 300 poor, homeless, addicted, paroled or otherwise troubled military veterans were able to restart their lives last year, director Stephen Gilligan says.

The program functions like a temporary employment agency, putting vets in entry-level jobs. But any resemblance to Manpower ends there.

The program jams in weekly drug tests, several-times-a- week therapy, watchful and concerned rehab specialists and other veterans encouraging each other.

Vets come back to life, several told me last week. Some even revive hopes for real careers.

But first, they must stay clean.

'Going to hell'

Smith, until a few months ago, had never held a legal job.

He'd started as a boy "carrying packages across the street" for a relative. Those packages contained heroin, he'd learn later. He grew up dealing and using acid, mescaline, angel dust.

"I thought I was the man about town. I thought I was the One," he said.

Until 1997.

In addition to the claw hammer attack, Smith's mother died of old age, his sister died of cancer and his daughter died in a car accident.

Guilt overwhelmed Smith, convinced him he'd killed his mother. "She got tired of watching me go to hell," he says.

He planned suicide, one day buying 10 Valium tablets, some bottles of Jack Daniel's and brandy, an ounce of marijuana and crack.

A rookie cop stopped him a block away from home. The officer saw a crack pipe under Smith's car seat and found crack rocks in Smith's pocket.

Smith asked the cop to let him go so he could kill himself.

The officer didn't. Smith was sentenced to probation and ordered to get help.

He cleaned up briefly but landed in the penitentiary two years later. He got out after a year and for two years steered clear of his old friends and drug life.

But he was lonely. Last Halloween, he planned suicide again, this time with sleeping pills.

A lucky chance

On the way to the drugstore, he says, a voice told him to "try the VA." He checked himself into the hospital's psychiatric ward.

"I was just tired. I wanted a decent, normal life if I could find it. I didn't know what that was."

Now, months of therapy and Narcotics Anonymous meetings have him trying life again, one day at a time.

First he worked "incentive therapy," washing cars and vans for $2 an hour. Now the tough ex-Navy man cleans patient rooms at the VA nursing home for $7 an hour.

He likes the elderly patients, who are mostly invalid.

"That was the turning point, seeing men in their late 80s and 90s who are almost like babies," he said.

"I go to clean up their rooms and we talk to each other and build a bond. I look forward to seeing them.

"I guess I help them. They help me."

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