We’ve all heard the horror stories about veterans suffering, and even dying, while they wait for medical attention. This isn’t one of those.
This is a story about a community and three caring employees at Veterans Affairs in Biloxi who made sure a homeless Vietnam veteran did not die in his pickup truck in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
Michael Eugene “Mike” Webb worked in construction until he couldn’t. At age 65, the North Carolina veteran of the U.S. Navy was alone in the world, having lost both parents decades ago. He got too sick to work while he was living in Tennessee.
A man who had always prided himself on being self sufficient, he lost his apartment in August. Webb moved into his two-door Chevrolet truck. When the weather got cold, he drove his truck to Gulfport.
He was living in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart Supercenter on U.S. 49.
In December, Webb was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. The disease had invaded his liver, kidneys and bones. He was being treated through Medicare at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport. Webb had never used his veterans benefits and no longer had the military-discharge card used to establish eligibility.
He had a hard time breathing, but he could not be prescribed oxygen or chemotherapy because he did not have a place to live.
He wandered into the Salvation Army in Gulfport a few months ago, receptionist April Morton said.
“He said, ‘I hate to ask, but can I get a shower?’ ” she said. “He was so, so sick. He was struggling to breathe.”
Homeless network steps in
Morton and volunteer Leo Suarez befriended Webb, who was upbeat on good days. Suarez and Webb were both North Carolina Tar Heels basketball fans. The first time Suarez met Webb, he was wearing a Tar Heels cap and T-shirt.
“He told me, ‘This is going to be our year,’” Suarez said. “‘We are going to make it to the championship. We are going to win!’”
A friend told James Edward Bates about Webb. Bates, a professional photographer who used to work at the Sun Herald, has since his college days been ministering to the homeless. Bates called Webb on his flip phone and confirmed he was living in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
He posted about Webb’s plight on the Facebook page he administers, Operation Homeless Hope, where he networks with like-minded people to help those in need. Friends donated money so Webb could rent a hotel room by the week. First Baptist Church in Gulfport picked up a third week.
One night, Bates was at a party with Becky Montgomery Jenner, a retired corporate executive and former United Way director. Bates said Webb had been unable to verify his military service to qualify for benefits.
Jenner said she would take Webb to the VA. She did, on a Tuesday. She said she encountered one unhelpful employee working in customer service. Webb, who couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without losing his breath, sat in a wheelchair, weighing only 93 pounds.
The customer service representative said Webb would have to fill out paperwork and mail it in to get his discharge papers, known as DD 214s. Jenner told the man Webb didn’t have weeks to wait, but he insisted there was nothing he could do.
And then, a woman passed them in the hall. She asked if they needed help. The woman, nursing assistant Evelyn Gardner, took Jenner and Webb to meet a second lady, eligibility clerk Barbara Carley. Jenner said Carley must have spent an hour on the phone trying to find Webb’s discharge papers.
When that didn’t work, Carley sent off a fax marked “medical urgency,” Jenner said. The paperwork arrived two days later. It looked as if Webb would be able to get into hospice at the VA. But first, the VA said, he needed a medical exam.
Because an appointment would take weeks to arrange, Jenner was directed to the emergency room.
“The emergency room doctor was a toad,” she said. “He said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I said, ‘Do whatever you need to do so he can start getting help. He asked, ‘Who told you to come here?’ This guy was jerk personified.”
Room with a view
A third VA employee worked with Webb. Jodie Picciano-Swanson, homeless veteran program manager, told Jenner what she and Webb would need to do to get his patient records from Memorial.
The doctor sent the records after the weekend. Jenner and her husband, Mark, moved Webb to hospice on a Wednesday. He had a room with a view of Back Bay.
Bates said he can’t stress enough the excellent care the hospice staff provided Webb, who moved in with two bags of groceries and a duffel bag. His clothes were always clean, but they were ripped and torn. Jenner took him to Wal-Mart, where he bought new jeans and shirts.
He had a food-stamp card for groceries, but he didn’t need it anymore. Hospice fed him well.
He kept insisting to his friends at the Salvation Army that he wanted to buy groceries for their food pantry. The Jenners took him shopping at Sam’s Club, where they loaded cases of groceries and delivered them to the pantry in Gulfport.
April Morton was at the office on 22nd Street when they arrived.
“He would always tell me, ‘I want to give back what I received,’” Morton said. She kissed his cheek before he left and told him she would see him later in the week.
The VA called her just three days later — Friday, March 31. Webb didn’t have long, she was told. She and Suarez went to hospice, where they found Webb in a recliner in the community room. He could no longer speak, but Morton took his hand and told him he was not alone. They would not leave him. His breathing slowed, then stopped.
He left his new clothes and truck to The Salvation Army.
‘Angel among us’
Salvation Army Maj. Gary Sturdivant delivered Webb’s eulogy Friday under the pavilion at the Biloxi National Cemetery on VA grounds. The Patriot Guard Riders stood at attention around the pavilion, each holding an American flag and one with a U.S. Marine Corps flag.
The VA had sent out a Facebook message about the funeral for a veteran without family, so a number of people attended to pay their respects. The friends he had made on the Coast were there, too.
He lived at the hospice center for two weeks and two days, Jenner said.
Webb saw the Tar Heels win a semi-final, but he was gone before the championships.
“On that Friday when Michael left this earth,” Sturdivant said, “I believe he went up there and worked out some kind of deal for that team to win the national championship.”
Sturdivant also recited a veterans’ motto: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit.”
Webb did not seem to expect anything from anyone. He accepted his fate without complaint; those who knew him these brief few months said.
Becky Jenner tried to convince Webb that he was a gift to her. He just said, in his feisty way, “I don’t think so.”
In the end, his life was an example to those who surrounded him of the grace compassion bestows. Each one said after the funeral how meeting Webb had blessed them.
He believed in God, Sturdivant said, mentioning they often talked under a tree behind one of the VA buildings.
“Mike,” Sturdivant said, “could easily have been an angel among us.”