Close to Home

This article appeared in the Thursday, July 12, 2012 edition of National Journal Daily.

Stephen Peck, CEO of U.S.VETS, knows that people who have fought in wars have unique ways of handling their memories.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Peck remembers seeing veterans of World War II constantly wearing their olive-drab wool caps, a visible reminder of their service and sacrifice. The caps sent a simple message: We remember. But when Peck himself returned from serving with the Marines in Vietnam in 1970, he did not wear a special cap. “I didn’t want that to be the experience that defined me as a person,” he said.

In fact, for a while, Peck wanted to forget. So after completing his service at an artillery base in California, Peck, the son of the late movie star Gregory Peck, went to film school and eventually landed a job with Fox as a segment producer for human-interest television shows.

But while his new job kept him busy after the war, it did not keep him fulfilled.

“War is such a compelling event, there’s really nothing to compare with that. So finding another mission after that, finding something that engages you completely, is difficult for a lot of guys,” he said.

Peck still hadn’t found something to fully engage him until the day he came upon a paralyzed war veteran who was living out of a car and keeping his Silver Star in the glove compartment. The veteran, who was always angry because of post-traumatic stress disorder, had been paralyzed from the waist down after getting shot during a fight.

Tired of producing slick packages for TV, Peck moved on to work on a documentary project for a Catholic mission in San Francisco. The film focused on the homeless population in the area, and Peck later produced a documentary about six homeless veterans living on Venice Beach in Los Angeles.

The second film featured the stories of the paralyzed veteran who was living out of his car, along with another veteran who was a severe alcoholic, unable to forgive himself for the women and children he had killed in Vietnam. These subjects became the focus of an eight-minute film, titled “Far From Home,’’ which Peck paid for himself. The film helped build the foundation for his current work with U.S. Vets, a nonprofit that helps put homeless veterans back on their feet. Before becoming its CEO, Peck spent 16 years working in various posts at the organization, beginning in 1996 as director of community development.

But his work with veterans began with that first documentary, which led to an hour-long film about combat veterans titled “Heart of the Warrior.” Peck screened the film at the Veterans Affairs Department, Walter Reed Army Hospital, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. It was while screening his film, and talking about the impact of combat on soldiers, that he began to develop more interest in veterans’ issues.

“The impact that you get from the war really stays with you, and you can either acknowledge it or you don’t. And I didn’t acknowledge it. Once I began working with veterans, that felt like a good outlet for that,” he said.

Peck, now 65, said that there was a sense of camaraderie, of “it could have been me,” that captured his attention. These men were fighting in Vietnam together, “part of the unit,” Peck said, which engenders a deep sense that “you can utterly and completely trust the other guys in your unit.”

“To think some of those other guys were still homeless didn’t sit well with me. I saw that I could have done something like that,” said Peck, who is married and has a grown son and stepdaughter.

Peck realized that, had he not come home from Vietnam to a wealthy family with a strong support structure, he could have ended up the same way. He says he realized later on that he had PTSD, an illness that affects hundreds of thousands of returning veterans and often goes undiagnosed, leading to more troubling issues like homelessness. U.S.VETS aims to help veterans escape homelessness by offering them a place to sleep and eat, mental and employment counseling, and a number of other services. The organization has 11 locations in six states and the District of Columbia, where its newest facility recently received a $25,000 grant to expand. Since the program’s establishment in Los Angeles in 1992, it has helped at least 100,000 veterans through outreach services and has found jobs for more than 8,000 veterans.

Peck is still not the veteran who will wear parts of his uniform regularly or attend reunions to remember his time in the war and his fellow soldiers. But he doesn’t have to wear his memories on his sleeve—because he works with them daily. “I have a very specific role, which is to help the veterans that I might have helped in the field,” he said.

By Alexandra Jaffe