ODESSA — Outside the little white church with lilac painted doors, balloons were bursting in the heat, popping like gunfire.
Gary Nodar winced.
Nodar came early to blow the balloons up for the party Saturday..
He tried to control his anger. The 49-year-old got in trouble not too long ago for throwing food trays at the assisted-living facility where he has stayed for the past five months. Before that, he bounced around between other facilities and hospitals. For six months, he lived in an abandoned home. He said he's schizophrenic and it's because of the Navy. He served for six years, eight months and three days, he said.
"I couldn't measure up," Nodar said. "It broke me."
The party was for homeless veterans at St. Jude's Church in Odessa. The church just opened in May, and the Rev. Morson Livingston is a former Army chaplain who is originally from India. Livingston, 50, wanted to have a picnic for homeless veterans on the Fourth of July to thank them for their service and to show them they are still loved.
"They are one of us," said Livingston, who wore his Army uniform. About 50 people showed up for the event, which Livingston plans to have again next year. Volunteers picked up the homeless to shuttle them to the party.
"We do not know what they experienced — the trauma they bear for the rest of their lives," he said.
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Skip Williams said he served in the Vietnam War from 1966-67. When he came back, he was spit on. He burned his uniforms and tossed his medals. He drank away the next 40 years, burning through two marriages and nearly losing his third.
"I turned my back on society," said Williams, 62, who now is the president of the board of directors for Steps to Recovery, a residence in New Port Richey for people in recovery from addiction and homelessness.
"Eventually, I couldn't keep fighting with God."
On Friday the 13th in October 2006 at a Salvation Army rehab center, Williams surrendered to his faith, he said. He stayed in Alcoholics Anonymous. He worked on his marriage, which is still intact. When he finds other Vietnam veterans, he shakes their hands and says, "Welcome home," to give them the welcome they didn't get back then. There are other vets at Steps to Recovery. He says it is a place of hope.
"The only thing we have left is hope," he said.
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Jim Kanehl was at the party as a volunteer for Gulfside Regional Hospice, to let people know about grief counseling. He is 81 and served three years in the Army's 88th Infantry Division in World War II. He saw two German tanks take aim at another soldier, a man named Sam from New York. He said Sam didn't see the tanks lying in wait.
"We yelled, 'Sam, come back!' " said Kanehl, as he sat at a table under a tent. "They shot him right there."
A balloon next to Kanehl burst at that moment. He flinched, ducked and sat back up.
"It was a terrible thing to see," he said. "But you put it in the back of your mind. You don't think about it."
After the war, he used the GI Bill to go to the University of Wisconsin and got a job selling insurance. He met the love of his life, Josephine, at a bar.
She was a widow. Her husband was a bomber pilot who died in the war. She was pregnant when he died. Her son, Alfred, who became Kanehl's stepson, died when he was 16. It was 10 days before Christmas in 1959 in Columbus, Ohio. He and a friend were on a motor scooter on their street. A car of kids looking at Christmas lights hit them.
"She knew loss," Kanehl said. They had no children together. She died two years ago as Kanehl slept in a chair next to her. They had been married 56 years. He can push the nightmare of war out of his mind. But the pain of losing his Josephine is constant. Saying her name makes him cry.
"The four worst words I've ever heard in my life were, 'Josephine has passed on,' " he said. He works five days a week for the hospice group that cared for Josephine so lovingly. Kanehl has emphysema. He knows these people will take care of him when the time comes.
At the event, he struggled to breathe in the thick, hot air. He used up his portable oxygen tank working at the hospice thrift shop. But he stood during the ceremony for every prayer, for every salute. He balanced himself on a chair beside him. He used what breath he had to sing along with the others.
"God bless America, my home, sweet home," he warbled and sank into his chair, slick with sweat, pressing a white handkerchief to his eyes.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.