ON FISH LAKE, Minn. -- For most of last summer and into November, Walter Sroka lived in a tent along the St. Louis River near Cloquet. He was homeless. When he needed food, he would ride his bicycle to town, buy a few groceries and return to the river.
But by November, winter was coming on.
"I had to get off the river before it got any colder," Sroka said.
An Army veteran who was recovering from alcohol abuse, Sroka, 46, found his way to transitional housing provided by the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans in Duluth. The organization is a nonprofit that provides assistance to homeless veterans and their families.
Life is getting better for Sroka.
One Friday, life was especially good. Sroka and about 10 other Duluth-area veterans gathered at Fish Lake to see if they could catch a few fish. The outing, sponsored by the Duluth Vet Center, is one of several held through the year to give veterans a chance to spend time together in a recreational setting.
The fish -- crappies, northern pike, perch -- weren't particularly hungry.
"I had a bite," said vet Wayne Nelson, 51, of Duluth. "But I didn't set the hook."
Nelson, too, is a resident of transitional housing at MACV. Others at the outing were more recent vets, living on their own, home from deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan, said Chris Roemhildt of the Duluth Vet Center. A veteran of two Iraq deployments himself, Roemhildt said vets can feel alienated after returning from duty.
"One of the hardest things is the general feeling that you don't fit in like you used to fit in, whether it's with a peer group or friends or family," Roemhildt said. "We try to link vets with other vets."
Friday's ice-fishing event was headquartered at Hi-Banks Resort on the lake. Four of the vets dangled jigs and minnows through holes in a fish house not far off shore provided by Hi-Banks owner Tim Wagner. Others sat at the resort's bar having lunch.
Sroka, a communications specialist in the Army, served during peacetime in South Korea, Europe and Texas from 1985 to 1989. After leaving his camp near Cloquet last fall, the Veterans Administration helped him find housing at MACV.
"They took me in this winter, and I have been very grateful," Sroka said. "They're helping me so I can get some rest and help me get stabilized. It's really been a game-changer for me."
He's been in recovery from alcohol addiction for a year, he said. He enjoys being with his fellow vets on outings like this.
"Doing some things that are fun -- sober," he said.
Joining Sroka and Nelson in the fishing shack were Al Naapila, 56, a Navy vet, and Sam Differding, 56, a Marine. While the fish weren't biting, the vets took turns exchanging friendly jabs about each other's branch of service.
Naapila served on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the 1980s and told of the time a Russian submarine tried to surface directly beneath them.
"Somebody said, 'We hit a whale,'" Naapila said. "I said, 'That wasn't a whale.'"
The sub suffered some serious damage, Naapila said, but the Russians turned down U.S. offers of assistance.
Differding, also a resident at MACV's transitional housing, said he had been homeless for about five years before getting assistance. He served in the Marines from 1974 to 1981, spending a lot of time aboard Navy vessels in the South China Sea. Differding said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his experiences in the Marines.
"I spent a good portion of my 61/2 years with the air wing," Differding said. "When a jet hits the ground at 580 mph, somebody has to clean up the mess. ... I've been on ships where you had helicopters that crashed. When you're exposed to that, it does a certain amount to your psyche.
"But the worst came from my encounters in the Dominican Republic."
Differding's unit was sent there by President Jimmy Carter to offer humanitarian aid after a hurricane.
"There were more than 15 ships in the harbor," he said. "Three of them were capsized. Another was 300 feet up on shore. There were a lot of bodies floating by the ships. We were cleaning up the bodies and trying to establish humanitarian relief. It was a pretty terrifying time."
Reflecting on his current challenges, Differding said winter is no time to be homeless, and he appreciates the housing provided by MACV.
"How do you thank people for saving your life?" he said. "MACV is a program that's beyond what I could have expected. It's afforded me the opportunity to get my life back in order."
The wars Americans have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are far different than America's earlier wars, said the Duluth Vet Center's Roemhildt.
"The common phrase among combat veterans is, 'We're out there fighting and dying, and the people back home are at the mall shopping'," Roemhildt said. "It's the sense that the sacrifice isn't felt across the country. That can be alienating."
That's why it's good for vets to get together on outings like Friday's -- ice fishing, open-water fishing, going to plays, having dinners at the American Legion, kayaking on Lake Superior. Those activities pull the vets together, Differding said.
"We're all working to help each other," he said. "We're all recovering from one addiction or another. You stand up for your friends ... I have more faith in these guys than the average guy walking down the street."
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