Formerly Homeless Vet And His Dad Remember His Darkest Moments

Apr 18, 2015
Originally published on April 18, 2015 8:59 am

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Before Marine Cpl. Zach Skiles left for Iraq in 2003, he shared a quiet moment with his father, Scott Skiles.

"I remember saying to you, 'Every gift that I've been given, I don't have a better one than to get to be your dad,' " Scott tells Zach at a StoryCorps interview in San Francisco. "And I remember you smiling and saying, 'I love you too, Dad.' And then you got out of the car and went to war."

Zach served in Basra, Babylon and Baghdad at the start of the U.S. invasion. But when he came back after his deployment, he wasn't able to hold a job — and ended up homeless.

This Storycorps interview is the first time father and son sat down to talk about life after the war.

"I was pretty sure someone was going to kick down my door, and I was scared to go to sleep," Zach says. "I couldn't sustain employment. I couldn't pay rent and pay for groceries. It all just kind of fell apart, and then I was homeless.

"The crazy thing is that I didn't think there was anything super-wrong. You know, the nighttime I stayed on coastal trails and hiking trails, and in the daytime I could just pass out at a park."

"There was a time period where I didn't know where you were," his father tells him. "And it is difficult to watch anyone let go of hope, but when it's your son, it's excruciating.

"I remember great relief that you decided to go into inpatient treatment. And I remember one night you getting out of the car to walk back into the treatment building. It was dark and your head was kind of down, and for a moment I could feel the weight you were carrying.

"As I watched you walk into that building I uttered these two words — I don't know if they were some kind of prayer or not, but they just came out: 'My son.' And I was absolutely overcome with grief, and love, and the beginning of hope."

Today, life is better for Zach Skiles. He's graduated from college — summa cum laude, his father points out. He now helps other veterans with PTSD at the Pathway Home, under the same program that helped him recover, and he will start a doctoral program in clinical psychology in California next fall.

"I remember my dad saying this to me and I feel it is so true between you and I: It is your life, so you have the last word," Scott Skiles tells his son. "But then, as your dad, that gives me the second to the last word.

"And the second to the last word is: I believe in you, and I'm on your side."

Produced for Weekend Edition by Andres Caballero.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Let's hear now from StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative, sharing stories from post-9/11 service members and their families. Today, the story of Marine Cpl. Zach Skiles. He served in Iraq during the start of the U.S. invasion in 2003. When he came home nine months later, he couldn't hold a job. He ended up homeless. Zach and his father, Scott Skiles, never sat down to talk about life after war. At StoryCorps, they remember how it all began the day Scott drove Zach to his base before being deployed.

SCOTT SKILES: I remember saying to you every gift that I've been given, I don't have a better one than to be your dad. And I remember you smiling and saying I love you too, Dad. And then you got out of the car and went to war. So what was life like after you came home?

Marine Cpl. ZACH SKILES: I was pretty sure someone was going to kick down my door, and I was scared to go to sleep. I couldn't sustain employment. I couldn't pay rent and pay for groceries. It all just kind of fell apart, and then I was homeless. The crazy thing was that I didn't think that there was anything super wrong. At nighttime, I stayed on coastal trails and hiking trails. And in the daytime, I could just pass out at a park.

S. SKILES: There was a time-period where I didn't know where you were. And it's difficult to watch anyone let go of hope. But when it's your son, it's excruciating. I remember great relief that you decided to go into inpatient treatment. And I remember one night you getting out of the car to walk back into the treatment building. It was dark, and your head was kind of down. And for a moment, I could feel the weight you were carrying. As I watched you walk into that building, I uttered these two words that - I don't know if they were some kind of prayer or not, but they just came out - my son. And I was absolutely overcome with grief and love and the beginning of hope. What is life like for you now?

Z. SKILES: It's pretty cool (laughter).

S. SKILES: You graduated undergrad.

Z. SKILES: Yes.

S. SKILES: I heard summa cum laude.

Z. SKILES: (Laughter).

S. SKILES: I'm just asking. That's what I heard.

Z. SKILES: Yeah.

S. SKILES: I remember my dad saying this to me, and I feel it is so true between you and I. It is your life so you have the last word. But then as your dad, that gives me the second to the last word. And the second to the last word is I believe in you, and I'm on your side.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: That was Marine Cpl. Zach Skiles and his father Scott Skiles in San Francisco, Calif. Zach now helps veterans with PTSD at the Pathway Home, the same program that helped him recover. He will start a doctoral program in clinical psychology next fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.