Life's Voices
3:35 pm
Fri December 10, 2010

Dennis Johnson

Our “Life’s Voices” series continues on WUWM.

Each year-end holiday season, we chat with ordinary people whose extraordinary actions make them unique in the community. Today, we meet a Vietnam veteran who recently retired from a “blue collar” career that included stints as a crane operator and warehouse worker. His “work- a- day” world now centers on volunteerism and a different kind of heavy lifting. We spoke with him at a northwest side Milwaukee home that his group leases for homeless vets making the transition back to society.

Dennis Johnson inside a home for veterans on Milwaukee's northwest side.

“Name’s Dennis Johnson, I’m 63 year s old and I’m the executive director of the Veterans for Peace Milwaukee chapter, the homeless veterans initiative. We actively search for homeless veterans and try to bring ‘em back into the system and get ‘em off the street and assist them any way we can. The first and foremost thing we did was locate them to begin with and then take them over to the VA, getting them into the system if they weren’t. Many of them, especially the older guys like my age, Vietnam era veterans, a lot of them have benefits coming to them for their service they’re not even aware of. There’s been guys living homeless with no income that we’ve been able to secure a small pension for,” Johnson says.

I asked him about the food deliveries that he makes each month.

“That started about a year ago and it’s grown to where the last delivery I made was 105 boxes of food to area veterans. These were vets who were mostly, formerly, homeless who’ve gone through VA programs. They’ve lived over at the domiciliary. They’ve either completed or are still in the programs there, but they’ve moved into their own rooms and apartments and by providing weekly groceries, we help them out financially,” Johnson says.

I asked Johnson why he does it.

"Vietnam has left different feelings for all the veterans who served there. Everybody has a kind of different feel for what actually happened and what their role in it was. It’s just part of your military training, that you don’t leave any of the wounded behind. That’s kind of become my motto for this. I fee like caring for veterans who have fallen through the cracks is something that I need to do,” Johnson says.

I asked him what keeps him going.

"Well, just the thought that what I’m doing is worthwhile and at my age having something worthwhile to do, it helps me get out of bed in the morning,” Johnson says.

I asked Johnson whether there have been any surprises for him throughout his odyssey.

"Well, to begin with, it surprised me that there were even homeless veterans. It’s been kind of a learning experience for me. Homelessness is a complex issue to begin with all of what you might call t he normal issues that go with it –unemployment, substance abuse, mental health issues, and then veterans have their own “set” on top of all of those, especially now with the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans where they keep redeploying over and over, a lot of them lose family ties. Their family splits up, they have no job to come back to, they’ve lost contact with their friends and family, they have no support. Add some substance abuse or mental health issues and the end result to all of it ends up to be homelessness,” Johnson says.

I asked him how long will he keep doing this work.

“As long as I can still get up in the morning,” Johnson says.