U.S. Army veteran, Chris Burkhardt, agreed to talk about his journey from enlistment to ending up at HomeAgain under the condition that we would not release his photo. Even without putting a face to his name, his story is full of emotion, hardship, and a desire to move forward.
Chris grew up in Richmond and attended Thomas Jefferson High School, which was then called JHW. He participated in the ROTC program all four years and graduated second in his class. When asked what inspired him to join the military, he replied, “I wanted an adventure.”
“I was young, and I had never been away from home. I was patriotic and I understood what I was doing there,” he added.
He served three years as part of a Ranger battalion and then a mechanized infantry (3-19). Aside from early morning PT, Chris explained that he loved the experience, and by the end of his tenure, he was skilled in jumping from planes and handling weaponry.
He went on to share that when he got out, he went to Miami to take a break before utilizing his GI Bill to attend college. “I was young and arrogant. I had a plan to go to college and options. I planned to be a millionaire by age 30,” he said chuckling.
With plans to blow off steam during this gap year, Chris was partying when he met a young woman, on his 22nd birthday, who introduced him to heroine. He became addicted and stayed with her for 3 years. Although he admitted that he had loved her, Chris decided that their relationship had become too toxic and returned home to Richmond.
His struggles with addiction continued and Chris explained why he sometimes turned to drugs to deal with other things in life. “I busted my head during a drop in airborne once, and there were other traumas associated with service.” He also recounted loosing his best friend and relying on heroine to stop his pain.
Chris eventually cashed out his GI Bill and had a few run-ins with the law. He talked about trying to shake his addiction and his many stints in different rehabilitation facilities and psychiatric wards.
His battle with heroine was a secret, from most of his family, for many years until it was exposed and his siblings shut him out. Despite their judgment, Chris remained close with his father, a Vietnam veteran, who also abused drugs and alcohol. He recalled watching him die, in 2013, on the living room floor after they had just gotten high.
He paused from eating his breakfast as he shared these intimate details of his past and the obstacles he’s faced… for the past two weeks, he has been in our Veteran’s Transitional housing Program, in our shelter, on the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. He said, “I like HomeAgain; I pushed for this. The safety, security, and familiarity are what I need. Being here helps me keep my drug addiction in check.”
He added, “It’s not like other pushy places I’ve been. They give you the freedom to do what you know you need to do, and they assist you. I appreciate that.”
Chris stressed many times that he wants people to be on his side and to understand that he is making his addiction issues his first priority. “There are things about it that bother me. I need to find what triggers it.”
When asked what services the VA could offer that may prevent veterans from a path like his, Chris mentioned exit counseling as an option, along with the assurance that the military will be there to help – should you ever need it post-service. He went on to say, “I think that the VA is actually set up quite well, but you have to find competent help.”
At HomeAgain, he believes he has found that. He shared that our Program Director at the Veteran Shelter, Daryl Goldsmith is “quite impressive.”
Daryl explained that the program is focused on “homeless veterans seeking to regain a sense of self, purpose and [to] correct their life direction as significant health and social issues are addressed on their road to the achievement of permanent housing.”
Chris seems to have found hope in getting his life back on the track that he wants and is trying now to get into the work therapy program at the VA once he is able to have a job.
He offered this piece of advice to current soldiers so they do not end up in the same situation, “The whole purpose of the armed services is to protect the country. Stay in until you can retire, because you will still be young enough to do what you want with all the benefits and maturity.”
Once he exits HomeAgain’s program, Chris expressed interest in traveling the world, especially Asia, Australia, and Alaska. “I love history; I’d love to explore ancient ruins one day,” he added.