As a soldier, Jeff Craighead slept in the middle of the sweltering Iraqi desert and through the rumbling sounds of bombs blowing up in Afghanistan. He said he would do it all again — as long as he knew there would be help for him and his family when he returned home.
“I chose to stand up for my country and do what was right according to their standard and now I’m wounded, I’m hurt, I’m down,” said Craighead, 29, who retired from the Army in 2011 due to diabetes and multiple sclerosis. He moved from Georgia with his wife Patricia and stepson to a rental home in Spanaway to be near his inlaws. After nearly three months in their home, the family was kicked out when the bank foreclosed on the property. Suddenly, they were homeless.
While his 15-year-old stepson, Jonathan Foright, was tucked in bed at a relative’s house in Spanaway and his wife slept at a relative’s house in Tacoma, Craighead found his nighttime sanctuary in the back of his 2005 Saturn Vue. For warmth, he cuddled next to his pet — a 200-pound pink-and-gray pig named Penny. The pig once had been a gift for his wife but now it was his living blanket and close companion. The two spent seven months of endless nights in the car and endless days walking around city parks in Spanaway and Tacoma, like two misfits traveling on islands of freshly cut grass. Finding work was difficult.
Craighead eventually was able to get a job working for a small-engine repair shop off Pacific Avenue in Parkland. Yet after just one month there he got into an altercation with the owner and quit. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shake his funk.
He remembered “calling the veteran’s crisis line, pouring my eyes out to them and having them tell me, ‘It’s going to be OK, Mr. Craighead.’ Really, tell me how it’s going to be OK? Tell me what you’re going to do to make something different for me that everybody else has said they’re going to make different and they haven’t. Tell me how you’re going to explain to me that the $1,064 I’m currently making off a pension, because I’m retired, pays my rent and then I have $64 left over. So that $64 is going to get me through the entire month for food?”
‘A Traumatic Strain’
Craighead’s story — save for perhaps the pet pig part — isn’t as unique as it should be. During an average month, more than 4,000 people exit the U.S. military. Some 500 of them exit through Joint Base Lewis-McChord, one of the biggest military installations in the nation and Pierce County’s largest employer. Many of those soldiers struggle re-entering society. Many are battling monumental hurdles due to injuries, both mental and physical, and have families that need their support.
“Poverty is a huge issue in our community, on top of that you get somebody from the military who has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), who has a traumatic brain injury, military sexual assault … and they’re coming out of an environment where they’ve been told what to do for anywhere from a year to 23 years or longer,” said Patti Spaulding-Klewin, Veteran Program team lead of Catholic Community Services/Phoenix Housing Network. “Some folks make the transition easily and some folks don’t.”
Craighead says he’s one of the many who suffer from PTSD. He also worries about the long-term effects being homeless might have on his stepson.
“Growing up in a rough-environment childhood, I would say that in some way, shape or form my youngest son has a form of PTSD,” said Craighead. “Nobody knows it yet because he’s only 18 and it hasn’t had time to come out. Because there is a traumatic strain of your parents being homeless, you being homeless — you’re staying with relatives — they don’t know what’s going on. You’re tired of traveling around.”
Craighead’s stepson Jonathan, now 18 and a high school graduate, said the simplest things presented the biggest obstacles when he was homeless.
“Getting to school, worrying about where I was going to live,” he said, “it was really hard on me and my family in general. But we overcome.” Like many other students who spent part of their childhood homeless, Jonathan didn’t tell his classmates what he was going through. He wasn’t ashamed, he said, he just didn’t feel the need to share his family’s struggles with the world.
This fall, Jonathan begins training to become an Air Force pararescueman. He said his stepfather’s struggles after retiring from the military didn’t sway his dream of serving his country.
“In his case the military wasn’t as, I guess, fruitful for him but I don’t feel as wary that it will happen to me or that it will happen at all,” Jonathan said. “I did what I needed to do. I went through school, that was basically it. I did everything I could to better myself, to get myself to where I wanted to be.”
A Happy Ending
Eventually, Craighead got help securing a deposit on a South Tacoma home. Since then, he’s started his own business and Penny the pig sleeps at the foot of his bed. Some people still recognize him as the guy with the pig from his days with Penny at the park. He’s OK with that. While he was homeless he got a call from a meat shop about an 893-pound boar that was dropped off unexpectedly and needed rescuing. A friend of a friend of a friend who knew Craighead from the park said he might take it. Then, Craighead started getting more unexpected calls from people about pigs that needed rescuing. One call was about two African pygmies shipped to Sea-Tac airport that were never picked up. Craighead saved them all, as well as five others that now live on a Spanaway farm. He pays for their food and care.
These pigs he cares for were once pets, and then, for whatever reason, were pushed aside. Homeless. Forgotten. But not by Craighead. He gets it. He wants people to know what it was like to come back from war and struggle on native soil.
“One of the first things they teach you when you’re going through basic training is, ‘What makes the green grass grow?’ ‘The answer is blood, drill sergeant, blood makes the green grass grow.’ We are taught to kill, we are taught to maim, we are taught to be soldiers, to do a job that no one else wants to do. And for that, you’re going to have some type of traumatic stress.”