Remembering Dwight Radcliff

I will always remember Dwight Radcliff, an Air Force veteran who overcame homelessness and later became director of one of the largest organizations that helps homeless vets in the country, the United States Veterans Initiative. I can’t believe he is gone already. He died July 31 of a heart attack at just 55 years old.

I only met Radcliff once, in 2007, but I will always be thankful for the impact he had on me. He was the first person who ever asked me if I was okay and if I was getting the help I needed to readjust to “normal life” after spending significant time as a reporter in the war zone.

Or at least he was the first person who asked in a way that I heard, in a way that went straight to my soul, in a way that I couldn’t ignore.

At the time, I had been reporting on the Iraq war for four and a half years – the first three as an unembedded journalist in Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf and Kurdistan and then a year-and-a-half more interviewing veterans about their difficulties adjusting to a civilian society that scarcely paid attention.

I had my problems, but overall I thought I was doing fine. Certainly I was doing better than the Iraqi families I’d interviewed who’d lost their loved ones to U.S. bombing campaigns, or the soldiers who’d barely survived roadside bomb blasts, or the formerly homeless vets who were sleeping in the massive compound Radcliff ran. Sure, I sometimes had visions of a dead woman I’d seen rotting at a Fallujah front yard, and, yes, I spent an awful lot of time listening to audio recordings I’d made of killings and pictures I’d taken of their aftermath, but the way I felt paled in comparison to the symptoms of my interview subjects. So I figured I was probably all right.

From time to time, someone would ask me what it was like seeing the war up close and continuing to cover it at home. I would usually tell them that I wasn’t one of those “crazy war correspondents” who ran after every bomb blast. I was more a considered, introspective reporter who would show up after the fact to interview survivors about how they were dealing with the aftermath. Plus, I said, unlike soldiers and marines deployed to the war zone, I was a reporter who was able to pick and choose my spots. And when I felt like it was too much, I left the country. I was okay, I said.

I met Radcliff when I visited U.S. Vets' Westside Residence Hall, a hulking, eight-story structure near Los Angeles International Airport. I was writing a story on homeless Iraq and Afghanistan vets and wanted to see how many were turning up in institutional settings. I interviewed two recently returned vets, one who bought a one-way bus ticket to Los Angeles when he couldn’t take his small Wisconsin town anymore after a tour in the war zone and another who had returned severely wounded after a bomb blast in Iraq and then turned to drugs to dull the pain.

After interviewing these clients, I was taken into the building’s office to interview Radcliff, who, as the organization’s chief operating officer, could provide some perspective on the overall situation for homeless Iraq and Afghanistan vets. After I turned off my tape recorder, Radcliff asked me some questions about my time in Iraq and the kind of work I did there.

“And about you,” he asked, grabbing my arm. “Are you getting the help you need?”

I was a little taken aback by his question and shrugged it off, much as I shrugged off most other inquiries about my mental state. But there was something about the intensity with which Radcliff asked the question – the knowing look in his eyes, which sent a message somewhere between kindness and steely resolve. What made his inquiry stick with me was the knowledge that he had seen thousands of veterans come home after war too proud to ask for help.

It would be another year and a half before I first went to see a counselor and another six months after that before I found a pro-bono therapist who seemed to understand my issues. But it was a much shorter period of time before I began to “own my experiences in Iraq” and started talking to other journalist friends about war trauma. Today, I do not have those regular visions of Fallujah and I only listen to my audio recordings or look at my photographs when I have a specific reason to do so. I don’t know that I ever would have gotten the help I needed if it had not been for Radcliff asking me that question in the summer of 2007.

The Los Angeles Times obituary tells the powerful story of Radcliff’s life: He grew up in South Central Los Angeles, joined the Air Force, but fell on hard times and suffered from homelessness and substance abuse. Radcliff knew firsthand that recovery is possible because he lived it. After he got the treatment he needed, he got his life back on track and earned a certificate in drug and alcohol counseling at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1997, he joined U.S. Vets, helping to run its Inglewood facility. In 2008, he was made president of an organization with properties from Hawaii to Houston to Washington, D.C. Shortly before he died, the Times reported, U.S. Vets broke ground on a new, $34.9 million affordable housing development near LAX.

Dwight Radcliff will be remembered by the many people he touched during his 55 years of life. I wish I had the chance to thank him in person before he died.