WEST END NEIGHBOR: Veterans seek wilderness respite

KEN CHOSE NOT to give me his last name.

Ken qualifies as homeless, according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Most could call him a squatter. He lives without running water, sewage or electricity.

When he answered my questions, he didn’t make eye contact with me.

He directed his answers to his friend and confidant, Cheri Tinker.

We were sitting in her office at Sarge’s Place, 250 Ash Ave. in Forks.

Tinker is the executive director of Sarge’s, which offers emergency and permanent housing for veterans, and Ken was there temporarily.

He says he is one of the last Vietnam veterans still holding to life in the trees.

Ken is one of those mysterious people who live out in the forest, far away from this electronically driven society.

He has made his home in the wilds north of Lake Ozette and well beyond the end of the Hoko Road.

Raised in the Bronx, N.Y., Ken said, “The first time I saw anything natural was in the Museum of Natural History.”

The dioramas told him of places he longed to see.

In 1965, during the Vietnam War, he volunteered for the Navy Hospital Corps.

Ken said, “I don’t know which was worse, Vietnam or the Bronx.”

When he came back to the U.S., he landed in Boulder, Colo.

Through twists and turns, he found himself picking apples in Chelan and that was where he heard of people living around Shi Shi Beach.

“When Reagan got elected, that was it, I moved to Shi Shi permanently,” he said with short breaths.

Ken shifted in his seat and I realized his backpack was still completely over his shoulders. He straightened his mid-length pale beard with sinewy fingers and continued.

“We were called the ‘Hoko Gang,’ ” said Ken. He told of others who took up residence in the spruce forests of the West End — Green Berets, special ops men.

“There were women out there too, mostly wives,” Ken said.

That was 30 years ago. Now Ken is facing the hard facts of growing old.

His eyesight has grown dim and his lungs don’t take the damp of the coastal forests as well as they used to.

It was his eyesight that brought him to Sarge’s Place, where he spent time recovering from cataract surgeries.

Tinker found funding through various channels open to veterans and orchestrated Ken’s surgeries.

She said, “When I first saw him, he was so skinny, he truly looked emaciated.”

She said he was eating barnacles and Ken didn’t deny it but rather added, “The ones on the mussels are the ones I looked for.”

In his brief time at Sarge’s, Ken shared a room with a veteran from Iraq.

“As soon as the sun goes down, the blinds go down,” Ken said. “We could agree on that.”

Tinker explained that some vets live in a state of hyper-vigilance that carries over from combat, a near-constant state of being abnormally alert to possible danger.

In the case of the blinds, both men were aware of a silhouette being a target for snipers.

“We have a huge number of Vietnam vets who are at an older age and able to talk about childhood and wartime trauma,” Tinker explained.

She said Ken’s roommate benefited from seeing how Ken has progressed through his mental baggage and added, “You have to be ready to talk about your experiences and the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are still not ready to talk about it.”

Said Ken: “You never talked about Vietnam once it was over.”

He said even in the company of fellow servicemen, the topic was taboo.

The Iraq veteran wasn’t long at Sarge’s Place as he felt much more comfortable in the thick forests of the Hoh Valley.

Ken himself has done alright during his times in Forks, but he misses walking the beach when he has been away.

“There is always something to do on the homestead,” Ken said.

He had training as a commercial artist from before signing up for the Navy, so he likes to sketch in the solitude.

He makes walking sticks from yew wood and plays the harmonica and recorder.

His cat, Susi, keeps him company and because of gates on logging roads out by his home, he jokes, still looking at Tinker, “I live in a gated community.”

“I have friends come and visit, but I am glad to see them go, too,” Ken said.

_________

Zorina Barker lives in the Sol Duc Valley with her husband, a logger, and two children she home-schools.

Submit items and ideas for the column to her at [email protected], or call her at 360-327-3702. West End Neighbor appears in the PDN every other Tuesday.

Her next column will be March 20.

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