West Haven — The first thing Demetrise Jordan will tell you is that her transition to civilian life from the military, which included combat duty during Operation Desert Storm, was fairly easy — seamless, really.
The second thing Jordan will tell you is that she has little in common with the veterans she serves at Errera Community Care Center in West Haven, where she works as an outreach specialist in homeless services.
This is all true, insofar as Jordan’s clients are typically in crisis and she — a planner, a go-getter, fully employed, stable — is not.
But it is hardly the whole truth, or even the most important truth, about Dee Jordan, and she knows this, too. In fact, Jordan shares a deep connection with her clients, a connection so profound that she is constantly trying to straddle her twin desires to help people and to avoid getting too close to them.
“I feel like I don’t make close connections. I want to help them, but I don’t want to be in their world,” Jordan admits. “I don’t like to hear about their experiences, because it makes my experiences real, because I put my experiences in a box.”
Jordan means this both literally and figuratively. She does not possess a single memento from her military service — not a photograph, not a medal, not a record. They are all stored in Waterbury — most of them packed away in boxes these past 25 years — at Jordan’s childhood home, where her father still lives.
When asked if she would be willing to unpack the boxes for this story, Jordan is quiet. She will think about it, she says finally.
Two weeks later, she has an answer.
“No. I’m sorry. But no.”
The answer is both a refusal and an admission. Jordan is saying she will not open the boxes, but she is also saying something else: She is saying she cannot open the boxes.
The boxes are there for a reason, in other words. They contain the past.
And contain is simply another word for control.
‘Let me ask you … ‘
Chester Chamblee, 64, got up early to be at Jordan’s desk by 8:10 on a frigid January morning. He had to get there early because that’s when the homeless clinic hours are held at Errera, which is a multifaceted hub of services operating within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Jordan’s spoke on the wheel is slender, comparatively, but crucial to Errera’s overall mission, as she is one of the first people to interact with veterans when they first come to the VA for help. She not only works for the clinic, which means she sees veterans who walk in off the street, but she fields everything that comes in through the national call center and Errera’s hot line.
Last year, she met with 780 veterans and did triage on more than 450 calls, all from her corner desk, where she sits with her back to the wall and a row of small bamboo plants screening her work area from the next cubicle. A quote from Mark Twain hangs on the bulletin board behind her: “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. It was here first.”
Jordan’s job this morning is to find out what happened to Chamblee, determine his needs, and set in motion the steps to address them.
It sounds simple, Jordan says, but it rarely is because the veterans often have a multitude of needs — medical, psychiatric, housing, employment, you name it.
It turns out that Chamblee, a Vietnam veteran and grandfather of eight, is not unlike others who have sought Jordan’s help. He has a number of problems, but the most critical of these is that he’s lost his place to live.
Chamblee was staying with a brother, he explains, until the brother, who likes to spend his time at the racetrack, was evicted.
“I thought he was paying the rent,” Chamblee says. “Shoot. He wasn’t paying nothing.
Chamblee is worked up, but in a nonthreatening kind of way. Mostly, he just wants to talk. He lost his key to the apartment because he loaned it to his nephew. The nephew, it turns out, smokes weed. Chamblee could smell it. And that didn’t sit well with him.
“I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink,” he says. “But I do like to eat. Yes I do.”
Jordan says nothing throughout all of this. She sits and looks at Chamblee, her expression perfectly neutral, unsmiling, hands knotted together on the desk.
Finally, she asks a question about his health, indicating that she knows he was recently released from Yale-New Haven Hospital.
He’s launched again, this time into a long soliloquy about how poorly treated he was at the hospital, where he says a nurse went through his bag — “My personal belongings!” — without so much as a by-your-leave.
“I was eight hours at Yale Hospital. Didn’t offer me a cup of coffee or a cup of tea the entire time,” Chamblee says, shaking his head in disgust.
Jordan is, again, unresponsive.
“Let me ask you a couple of questions,” she says, when he seems to have exhausted his indignation.
The questions that follow are routine: Marital status? Single. Education? High school, three years of college.
Military service? Army, active duty, 1970-78. Vietnam 20 months. Hostile or friendly fire? Every single night.
Slightly longer pause.
Last place you lived? Brother’s. Then hospital. Then shelter.
They go on like this for the better part of an hour, until Jordan has a somewhat complete picture of Chamblee’s medical and financial problems. Then she steers the conversation to his options for housing.
Errera has 170 beds around Connecticut, ranging from emergency shelters to transitional housing, for veterans like Chamblee; but he obviously wants to stay local, where he can see his family.
Jordan is explicit in her instructions to Chamblee, making sure he understands what he needs to do next, where he needs to go, and when. She does not lighten up until the interview is almost over, until Chamblee says, in his soft Virginia accent, “You’re a very pleasant person.”
“Say it a little louder so everyone can hear you,” Jordan says with a playful grin.
The smile alters her entire face.
‘… we’re out there alone’
Jordan, 45, has been working at Errera since 2010, shortly after earning a BA in human services from The University of Connecticut. She got her MBA last year from Albertus Magnus College and is currently taking online accounting courses so she can get a CPA license.
“I like the social work field, but I want to go into the business side,” explains Jordan.
What she doesn’t explain is that there are no combat stories on a tax return, no damaged human beings with overwhelming problems lurking in the columns.
Jordan was 19 when she enlisted in the Army, one year after graduating from W.F. Kaynor Technical High School in Waterbury.
Enlisting wasn’t the plan; the plan was for Dee — smart, driven, talented Dee — to become an architect.
After all, she’d won the coveted internship given to the best student in her class and spent the next year working after school at a local architectural office.
The plan changed, she says, when “I realized it was really boring.”
That’s when Jordan remembered the military recruiters who had visited her school, and she became increasingly intrigued with the idea of enlisting, primarily because she saw it as a way to get a college education. Her parents, who were raising seven children on her father’s salary from Timex Corp., didn’t have the money for college tuition.
Jordan began her basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina in 1988 and then moved to the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama for more intensive training as a multiple launch rocket system repairer.
She was 22, and stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas, when the United States declared war on Iraq in 1990.
Jordan shipped out in early 1991 with a support unit attached to Bravo 6, a field artillery unit.
“When the orders came down, I literally said, ‘I didn’t sign up for this. I signed up for the college money,’” Jordan says. “It wasn’t real for me until we were getting off the plane. We got there right as the ground war began and convoyed out the next day.”
The first night “in country,” as Jordan says, was surreal. U.S. forces arriving in Iraq were stationed at a base known as “tent city.” Jordan remembers seeing, with shock, the huge white structures suddenly looming out of the empty desert, glowing in the dark.
“I was immediately on alert,” she says. “I think that’s when the reality of it hit me, that I could literally die over there.”
Jordan’s unit left Tent City the next day, moving around the country all the time, striking targets and then moving on. The multiple launch rocket system, otherwise known as MOS, fired 12 rockets at a time and each rocket contained 5,600 bomblets. The soldiers referred to the rocket system as “steel rain” because, as Jordan says, “It destroyed everything within a 2-mile radius.”
Her unit would make the initial breach into new territory, fire the rockets, and then move forward. There were times when the enemy attacked, she says, and the first time that happened she was aware of being frightened for probably the first time in her life.
“We hear the noise. We see the cloud of smoke. The signal goes up. But we don’t know what’s going on, and we are so far ahead of everyone else that we’re out there alone,” Jordan says. “Always, this constant of not knowing, always being on alert.”
She is silent for a while, looking at her hands, remembering.
“I don’t know how to explain that feeling I had,” she says finally. “Is it avoidance? Yes. I try not to think about it.”
When Jordan returned from Iraq and went home to visit, she says, her family wasn’t sure how to treat her. Later, one of her sisters told her that she was “different” and that their mother was “walking on eggshells” around her.
But Jordan was still in the Army — she didn’t discharge until 1996 — and she would leave the U.S. again, this time for a new assignment in South Korea, before returning for a last stint at Fort Hood in Texas.
She began planning for life after the Army, lined up a job for herself as a corrections officer at an all-male prison in Texas. She worked at the James V. Allred Unit for five years, guarding prisoners who were either in close custody or segregated.
Jordan remembers feeling neither fear nor empathy during those years, which began to scare her.
“I didn’t really feel like I was happy and I didn’t feel healthy,” she says.
So, at her mother’s urging, she moved back to Connecticut in 2000 to start a different life.
‘… I had no control’
The sanctuary of the Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church in New Haven is a cavernous, bright, white and purple space where Sunday’s “corporate worship,” as they call it, can clock in at more than three hours.
Early in February, six choir members open the 11 a.m. service with a powerful call-and-response hymn that lasts nearly 10 minutes.
“Jesus reigns. (He reigns)
No one can kill him. (No one can throw him.)
He reigns. (He reigns.)”
By the time they finish, most of the people in the pews are on their feet, lustily singing along, hands raised in praise.
But not Jordan.
A regular here since 2005, she sits quietly by herself in a walled off cubicle, where she operates the cameras that provide the live feed to the church’s website. The noise — the passion of a Pentecostal service — surges around her in raucous waves.
A young woman, overcome with emotion, has to be helped out of her pew and that’s before the minister, Bishop Theodore L. Brooks, even begins preaching. When Brooks does get to his feet and starts talking, alternating between speaking in English and speaking in tongues, the congregation is transfixed.
The words roll out, picking up speed as he talks:
“I am powerful because my God is powerful-uh. I am mightier because my God is mightier-uh. I am a warrior because my God is a warrior-uh. I’m a conqueror-uh because my God is a conqueror-uh. I’m victorious-uh because my God is victorious- uh. I am who He is, uh, and who He is, is the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings and the shining morning star-uh. I am my Father’s child.”
By the time the service ends and people have gone to the front to be prayed over by the pastor and church leaders, Brooks, who is 70, is practically crowd-surfing, hollering and singing as he makes his way to the back of the church.
Through it all, Jordan sits alone in her booth recording the service, sometimes singing along, sometimes not, a look of relaxed joy on her face.
Afterwards, she says, “This is a very important part of my life.”
Jordan grew up a “pew baby” and, except for a period in her 20s when she stopped attending church and was “reckless,” has been devoted to her faith. As a result, she does not drink or smoke or even date. She has no children.
“I don’t want to play with God,” she says. “I think God has made provisions for me and I’m grateful for that. I have no children, but I have two nephews who are a big part of my life.”
Jordan admits she was changed by the war, ticks off the things about herself that she knows are true: “Hyper-vigilant, don’t like crowds, won’t sit with my back to the door, scans every room I enter, don’t follow things in the news because I don’t like the feelings I feel.”
The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 shook her deeply, she says, and made her feel like she was in a haze. She felt everything that the rest of the population was feeling — afraid and helpless — with one addition.
“I felt like I had no control at that time,” Jordan says. “My most vivid memory of 9/11 is the image of the people falling from the towers. For me, that was the worst part.”
“I know I have control issues,” she concludes.
‘… to be a veteran’
A few weeks later, Jordan is at her desk again doing intake with Frank Farrell, who grew up a ward of New York state, enlisted in 1953 for the “three hots and a cot,” and then wound up fighting in the Korean War.
Jordan speaks highly of her Korean War clients. “They’re tough, don’t expect anyone to give them anything, very self-sufficient.” And she’s a tiny bit more relaxed with Farrell, whom she already knows, than she was with Chamblee.
But she’s still almost entirely business-like, moving rapidly through the questions that will determine the extent of Farrell’s financial problems.
After about 50 questions and some fast calculations on the pad in front of her, Jordan looks up.
“So basically, you’re in the hole about $350 every month,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I’ve sold off everything I can,” Farrell says. “I’ve got nothing left.”
Jordan wastes no time on sympathy — what good would that do Farrell anyway? – and moves directly to the next steps. The paperwork he must submit to get financial assistance from the VA: copies of tax returns, three months of bank statements, Social Security forms.
“I guess I’ve got to go panhandling on the streets,” Farrell says.
Jordan’s head snaps up.
“No, I sneak into the legion hall when I know they’ve got food out, order a Coke and eat,” he says.
Jordan looks relieved.
Afterward, she is more emotional, not to mention expansive, about her clients than she has been on any previous occasion.
The thing she chooses to talk about is resiliency.
“I know some of the eloquences to how vets think, like when they say, ‘Suck it,’ that means take care of your own business. A lot of times I’ll hear them say, ‘That’s okay, I don’t need that. Save that for someone who needs it,’ or you’ll hear them say, ‘I have a place out here in the woods. I don’t need anything.’ ”
She tells the story of the veteran who said he didn’t need help with food because he had broth to drink, how she told him he couldn’t live on broth and he still didn’t want any help. So, she says, she waited until he was a “little more relaxed” and suggested the service again.
“He was a little bit less guarded,” she says. “I finally got him to accept.”
Jordan thinks for a bit, knits her hands in her lap.
“It’s not normal behavior to ask for help when you’re in the military.
“Although I’ve been out many years, I still have that same mentality,” she concludes.
“I understand what it means to be a veteran.”