War’s Over, Come Home

A Father Searches for His Son, an Iraq War Vet who Descended into Mental Illness, Homelessness


November 2023

BY BRIAN GABRIAL

Next time you pass a homeless person on the street, and he or she happens to be holding up a sign claiming to be a veteran, Patrick Smithwick has a request: Take those people at their word.

Smithwick wants people to “treat the vet as an individual, a man or a woman who is having a tough time…don’t just walk by and toss them a dollar.”

Smithwick adds, “Maybe talk to them for a minute.”

It’s personal for Smithwick. He hasn’t spoken to his 39-year-old son Andrew, a decorated, two-tour Iraq veteran, in five years.

“Last seen at dawn in a park in Albuquerque: running. Looping around the park. Running, knees a little higher than most, with a long, loping stride.”

So writes Smithwick in the preface of War’s Over, Come Home: A Father’s Search for His Son, Two-Tour Marine Veteran of the Iraq War (TidePool Press, 2023). In the book, he details his frustrating, heartbreaking, and so-far unsuccessful journey to find Andrew and bring him home.

 

(Above) Patrick Smithwick and his son Andrew in 2010, one year after Andrew’s return from his second tour of duty in Iraq (Below) Andrew, homeless in 2018

 

“My intention in these pages is to put the reader on the street with the homeless men, women and children of America, and put the reader in the living room, in the kitchen, in the hearts and minds of relatives and friends searching for their sons, cousins, brothers, trying to help them, but being hindered by HIPAA, by federal laws, state laws and the unwieldy, overwhelmed VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs).”

While the numbers vary, Andrew Smithwick is one of an estimated 33,000 U.S. veterans living on the streets, according to 2022 statistics from the VA. In Andrew’s case, his father says a combination of drug use and mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), created a wedge between Andrew and those who love him the most.

“He was our most social child,” Smithwick says, describing the second of three children he and his wife Ansley raised outside Baltimore, Maryland. “He was the leader of the pack when he was a kid. He would bring his friends over, always had his arms around everyone, joking around.”

(Above) As a child, Patrick says Andrew was a “kind and gentle boy” who loved writing and painting. (Below) The Smithwick family in 1995: Patrick, Andrew, Paddy, Eliza and Ansley 

 

Yet as Smithwick writes in War’s Over, Come Home:

“After Andrew’s second tour in Iraq ended in 2009, he returned to the States, was honorably discharged at the rank of corporal after earning two service medals, three service awards and a Letter of Appreciation.

“Gradually, but with increasing force and intensity, over a four-year period, he began losing jobs, losing apartments, losing friends. He became more and more paranoid, experiencing an onslaught of hauntingly painful false mental images that were real to him.

“He descended into an unceasing nightmare of trusting nobody. Started having hallucinations. He called, describing them, releasing diatribes and rants against us.

“And now he’s on the streets or in the mountains or along the banks of a river.”

Andrew Smithwick’s descent into homelessness originates, in part, due to his development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)— something many veterans develop during and after their service.

 

Private First Class Andrew Smithwick on the day of his graduation from Marine Corps Boot Camp in 2004, with his sister Eliza, mother Ansley, father Patrick and brother Paddy. 

Andrew in an Iraqi village in 2006

 Andrew on patrol in an armored truck in 2008 

 

According to Veterans Affairs, military deployment—especially to areas where Andrew served—puts soldiers at greater risk of developing PTSD, either while enlisted or after discharge. Seven out of every 100 veterans (or 7 percent) will suffer from PTSD, while those who served in Iraq between 2003 and 2011 have a staggering 29 percent chance of developing it at some point in their life.

To better understand PTSD, Smithwick researched the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) diagnostic checklist and found his son met the criteria.

“When these young men and women are decommissioned and leave the military, that is sort of an unbelievable shock to the system,” Smithwick says.

He adds, “Going from the military, where every moment is planned and all mapped out for you, and you’ve got everything scheduled—to doing everything on your own” can be an enormous change many find hard to handle.

“They’re used to these life-or-death situations,” he explains. “They’re used to all kinds of action and being on the edge. They come back and it’s like, ‘What the hell?’”

Veterans Affairs believes a truly accurate count of vets with PTSD is hard to gauge because many, like Andrew, refuse to seek help, suffering alone and undiagnosed.

For the Smithwick family, it wasn’t immediately apparent that Andrew was struggling. “I think that’s the insidious nature of PTSD. It’s not like a slap, like ‘wow, this is happening,’” Smithwick says. “We didn’t notice. He was just a little nervous and jumpy.”

He continues, “He got into a really good community college, but he just couldn’t go. He said he didn’t feel like sitting there and listening to a professor. Then he got a really good job working security for Bank of America. And we went and visited him. He seemed in good shape.

“The only thing was that he was living a little on the edge and doing some things we weren’t so excited about. We were a little worried about that. Then gradually he started going off traveling and getting these different jobs, and he’d come back and he’d have a twitch. He had this twitch in his eye.

“He started getting paranoid. First his girlfriend. He was paranoid about her. Then he got paranoid, thought we were calling his bosses. Then the paranoia turned into hallucinations after a couple years where he thought his brother was up on the roof watching him, that his brother was in the FBI.”

 

Andrew with his mother Ansley, shortly after his release from the Marines in 2009. He had moved to New York and begun working as a security guard for Bank of America.

Andrew with his father in March 2014, celebrating Patrick’s 63rd birthday. Patrick writes, “Five years out of the Marines, Andrew had a job he enjoyed and took pride in, driving tractor trailers. He picked up containers at the Port of Long Beach (in California)…then delivered them across the country.” 

Andrew in 2016, in front of his apartment in Desert Hot Springs, California. Patrick says his son was “underweight, jittery, unshaven” on this day. Shortly after this photo was taken, Andrew descended into homelessness. 

 

Many veterans like Andrew start self-medicating with alcohol and drugs to ease PTSD symptoms. “More than one in 10 veterans have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD),” according to the National Institute on Drug Use. In addition, “among recent Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, 63 percent diagnosed with SUDs also met criteria for PTSD.”

As his son’s mental health deteriorated, Smithwick and his family felt helpless against a legal system that protects an individual’s rights. He recalls the first time Andrew was hospitalized:

“When he first got there, he was in terrible shape. He had just become homeless, and he was paranoid, hallucinating, having serious problems, but got better after a few days with some medication and treatment.

“They had doctors, dentists, social workers, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and they tested him and he had every single symptom of PTSD you can have. He got better and better.

“Then one day he just left. There was no way you could keep him in there. That’s the way our country is. It’s a free country. You can’t force someone to stay in. It was so horrific because we were so close to having him back. He didn’t want to talk to us. Then he went back into the downward spiral.

“The shame of it is that there are all these medications, all these different therapies we’ve studied and learned about, all these people who want to help, but if the person doesn’t want it, having all those crazy thoughts in their head, they’re not going to do it.”

“We’re not a police state, and you can’t force people to do things.”

 

One version of the many flyers the Smithwicks created as they searched for Andrew; this was posted in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2018. 

 

When Smithwick last saw his son, in New Mexico five years ago, he and his family again tried but failed to convince law enforcement and social services to keep him hospitalized overnight, so the family could talk to him, convince him to get help. Even though Andrew’s brother “Paddy” had been given power of attorney over Andrew, Smithwick writes that a social worker told them:

A person has to meet certain criteria to be admitted. We can’t force anyone to stay if they are not displaying psychotic disorders.”

They were told that Andrew “has his rights.”

“His rights, Paddy says, his rights to walk thirteen miles with a fifty-pound backpack without eating all day. His rights to be homeless after fighting for his country in Iraq. His rights to sleep on the ground every night.”

Despite Andrew’s homelessness, Smithwick does see hope in the fact that veteran homelessness is decreasing. “People don’t realize that back about five years ago or so there were 70,000 homeless vets out on the streets,” he says.

But a year ago, in November 2022, the VA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced an 11 percent decline in veteran homelessness since 2020. Out of 582,000 homeless Americans, 33,000 were vets—down from 70,000 in 2010.

Every time Smithwick sees a homeless person, he wonders—for just a moment—if it might be Andrew. “It just goes, ‘Bam!’ It just hits you,” he says. “Or you hear a song, or you watch the news. You see these soldiers as they’re being deployed all over the world. So, there’s so many reminders.”

In War’s Over, Come Home, Smithwick writes that veterans like his son, the ones who can’t cope, drop out, or kill themselves, are those that “America leaves behind. They are the detritus of wars.”

“He’s a sort of microcosm of the whole problem,” Smithwick says of his son. “We’re one family out of thousands.”

The suicide rate among veterans is also higher. In its 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, Veterans Affairs determined that the suicide rate for veterans was 57 percent greater than for non-vets. There were 6,146 veteran suicides in 2020 alone, making suicide the second leading cause of death among veterans under the age of 45 (after accidents or unintentional injuries).

“Just the other day I got this email from a father,” Smithwick says. “He had a son who had two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, rising up through the ranks, but was in a little bit worse shape each time he came home. Then he was diagnosed with PTSD. Because he’s diagnosed, guess what? He’s out of the military. All he wanted to do all his life was be in the military. Two weeks later he was found dead in a shitty motel.”

Smithwick fears Andrew might ultimately meet a similar fate. He writes about his son on his birthday, three years ago:

“Today is Andrew’s birthday. Today he turns thirty-six. Does he know that today is his birthday? If so, that is depressing. If not, that is depressing. What’s not depressing at this hour, in the dark, thinking of my missing son? Finding him.”

“We just want him to get back,” Smithwick says. And he hopes his book will bring more awareness to the struggles of all veterans, and the need for all Americans to better appreciate the sacrifices vets have made.

“If people can support the veterans when they come home from these wars and service, it would be wonderful,” Smithwick says.

 

(Above) Andrew in 2018, as photographed by police officers who informed him he was trespassing on private property near Albuquerque, New Mexico (Below) Andrew in August 2022. 

 

A few months ago, Smithwick says his family received a video from someone who spotted Andrew, still in New Mexico. “It was from a distance. It was very hazy. It looked like he was in fairly good health. He was pushing his bicycle down the road. That’s the only update we have,” he says.

“What happens is that you feel upbeat for a couple weeks and then you start wondering, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” You want to get out there and look. We’ve had several expeditions out to look.

“It just breaks our hearts to watch the video pushing the bicycle, all by himself. It just breaks our heart to see him all alone.”

Still, with each passing day, Smithwick says he and his family are coming to terms with the possibility that Andrew might never come home, never return to them. “I don’t feel it’s quite the urgency [to go looking for Andrew],” he says, “and we’re all sort of working on this…we have a plan that we’re letting it unfold.”

He adds, “We’re not just jumping in a plane zooming out to wherever we hear he is every minute. So, I’m a little bit more at peace with it.”

 

Brian Gabrial can be reached at

 

*        *        *

 

Patrick Smithwick’s quest to find his son has taken him from New York to Orlando, from San Diego to Seattle—all in response to sightings and close calls. In this excerpt from War’s Over, Come Home, Smithwick writes about the time Andrew briefly, and confoundingly, returned home to Maryland.

I spotted an older man crumpled up on a bench. Bearded. Had the look of a homeless man. But that was out of context, out of place. A homeless man at the airport? Not breaking my stride, I approached. Not Andrew. Those eyes. Those eyes staring up at me showed no recognition. Face too narrow. Full beard. Passing him. Anger—a look of anger in those eyes. Burning anger. What caused that look?

I sat down on a steel bench thirty feet away. Studied the figure. Tried to do it without him noticing. Without making him uncomfortable. I got up—walked over. “Andrew?” The figure did not move. Only the eyes—looking up unblinkingly at me. “Andrew?” No response.

I returned to my bench. Sat down. The man stood—elongating himself, unfolding, now looking bigger, taller; he slowly, casually, lit a cigarette and ambled toward me, stopped a few feet away, holding a thick gray rug mat and a worn-blue duffle bag on his shoulder.

Stood there staring straight ahead, not acknowledging my presence. The shoulders were hunched. The back slumped. He looked not at me but up the long, empty sidewalk. I studied his profile.

“Andrew?”

He didn’t answer. Didn’t flinch. He slowly raised his right hand, took a pull on the cigarette, lowered his hand. He turned, looked at me, eyes wide open, the pupils constricted. Yes—this tall, gaunt figure was my son Andrew.

Somehow, he had flown all the way from Seattle to Baltimore; he had wanted to come home.

On the drive to the farm he sat perfectly still, erect, stiff, said nothing. I snuck looks to Ansley into the rearview mirror. This was our turning point. She had called Sheppard Pratt Hospital, one of the oldest and best psychiatric hospitals in the nation. She had everything lined up, to the point of where we would park. Where we would enter. What we would say. They had a room for him and they would take over. She knew the price, the estimated number of weeks for his rehabilitation. But how to get him there?

I had thought that on the drive home, I would casually bring up the concept and talk him into it. Or, we’d hoped we could head to Sheppard Pratt, located fifteen miles south of our farm and on the way, without drawing attention to what we were doing. I’d pull off the beltway early, take a circuitous route around the back roads, end up in the parking lot of the hospital. We’d have a good talk with Andrew in the lot, escort him to the door…

In the mirror, I saw Ansley pointing at an upcoming exit. I casually put on my blinker and pulled over into the slow lane. He jerked around fast. “What’re you doing? That’s not the way home.”

“I was thinking about stopping, getting something to eat.”

“No stopping. I want to go straight to the farm.”

“Oh well, I’m going this way. I like it. It’s a short cut.”

We pulled off onto Valley Road. Took it down through some woods. I was telling a story about the horses or pups, and once or twice even gently slapped his knee at funny parts—no response.

We came to an intersection. I put on my right blinker, wanting to go west toward Sheppard Pratt.

“Where’re you going? That’s not the way.”

I looked in the mirror. Ansley put both hands up. Our plan was shot.

When we arrived at the farm, he walked straight to what had been our patio last time he’d been home. We’d since built a high-arching gabled roof over it, supported by oak posts and pine crossbeams. He stretched out on the pillows of the recliner. It was chilly. I unrolled his rug mat, pulled it over his legs. He pushed it off.

He lay there: old beaten running shoes (“Go-Fasters” he’d joyously written me from Parris Island on the Marine Corps stationery—having five minutes a day to write—after he’d finished in the top five in the ten-mile obstacle course run.), soiled khakis, gray waffled riverman’s shirt over white T-shirt, thick beard, black visor of black cap pulled down low over his eyes.

His pupils were pinpricks; they glared at us. His face had narrowed. He’d lost twenty pounds since we’d seen him in January. His eyes blazed out at us in fury—and he didn’t move.

He’d always moved. Not fast, unless he needed to. He’d moved slowly, gracefully, assuredly, confidently. “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast,” was the Marine mantra. You can’t rush into a firefight and then back-step out of it. You had to make the right decision the first time. A sniper can’t hurry, pull the trigger, miss his target, and expect to live. He had to take his time, aim, steady himself, and hit the enemy.

My son wasn’t moving—fast, slow, or smooth.

He lay on his side. Ansley walked down the path to the back porch, up the steps, opened the kitchen door. Out bustled our Yorkshire terriers Winston and Alfie, with Winston in the lead, barking and happy. Winston jumped up on the recliner and tried to lick Andrew’s face. Alfie trotted out, put his feet up on the recliner. I set him down, by Andrew’s chest. Did they recognize Andrew’s scent? Andrew gently pushed them away until finally Winston lay by his feet, and Alfie snuggled in the bend of Andrew’s legs.

I carried Andrew’s duffle bag into the cold pantry, preparing to wash his clothes but changed my mind. I wanted to save the hot water for the long, steamy shower I was sure he’d take. A clear plastic container holding a just-purchased cell phone and its accessories, wires hanging out, fell to the floor. I picked it up, set in on the kitchen counter.

Ansley and I had had a grilled flank steak, potatoes and salad the night before. I cut the leftover steak into thin slivers, dropped them into a sizzling frying pan, and topped it off with a favorite of his—Worcestershire sauce. Chopped up the potatoes, dropped them in the pan. Cracked three eggs, scrambled them—sprinkled on another favorite: spicy Mexican hot sauce. Brought out the steaming plate, set it on the table one foot away from him, thinking the rich pungency of the eggs and steak and Worcestershire and hot sauce would be too hard to resist.

He wouldn’t touch it.

I went into the house, got my favorite throw blanket, spread it across his legs.

He kicked it off.

I asked if he wanted some hot soup.

“Fuck you.”

He got antsy. “Hypervigilant,” as described in definitions of PTSD. He stood up. Walked toward the house. Ansley looked at me in bewilderment. He walked up the steps to the back porch. Ansley followed. He went into the kitchen, automatically ducked as he stepped through the low doorway into the cold pantry, looked around. He patrolled slowly and methodically through the dining room, through the living room. Walked quietly upstairs. Looked in closets. He crouched, side-stepped up the steep, narrow flight of stairs with the low ceiling, into the attic. Ansley heard him pushing boxes around, searching.

He left the house, lit a cigarette, strolled to the garage. Capacious, three stories high—built one hundred seventy-five years ago of  hand-hewn chestnut beams three car-lengths long. I was worried about the cigarette. Didn’t want to set a precedent.

I envisioned him moving in with us, staying with us, healing with us, and then going back out into the world a strong and healthy man.

He stood outside the garage, smoking the cigarette, looking in at my old gray sedan, the red 1959 Farmall tractor—two five-gallon cans of gasoline beside it—our horse trailer, and tools and equipment hanging from the walls. He turned, headed for the barn, cigarette still in hand.

Would I have to stop him from going into the vast loft of our pre-Civil War barn, bales of hay on one side, straw on the other? He dropped the cigarette into the dew-covered grass, stepped into the loft. I could hear him pacing around the storage area, lifting tarps, moving boxes.

He returned to the recliner and lay on his side. The pups jumped up on him again. He gently pushed them away. We sat with him. He didn’t move. He lay there in the chill, not wanting to shower, not wanting to eat, not wanting to drink, not wanting a blanket. He lay there, emaciated, bearded, staring at us.

We asked questions. He wouldn’t answer. Finally, he accused us of not caring about him. All we cared about was Paddy and Eliza and keeping all our money.

“Andrew, your father just flew all the way out to Seattle to meet you, and then spent four days searching for you.”

I saw a flicker in his eyes. There was a split second of recognition, of awareness, that I had done something that showed my love for him. His words—“Meet me at The Frankfurter on the waterfront at 10:00 Saturday morning”—clear, concise, decisive, flowed through my mind. Did he remember?

“Do you think he’d do that if he didn’t care about you?” she added, and the spark left his eye.

I got him talking: Paddy had gotten a graduate degree in criminology and was now working for the FBI—searching for him. Eliza was also working for the FBI. We were despicable for withholding the small percentage—$10 million—of our total inheritance from his grandfather—$100 million—and he was going to hire lawyers and “hound us off the face of the earth” until he got what was due him.

I found myself giving a gentle lecture about getting a job, settling down, how in America today you have to work for a living. Look at how hard we’d worked, look at how well he was doing just two years ago when he stayed with us for the summer, arising at 3:00 a.m. every morning to drive medical supplies to hospitals. He’d been making good money, gotten a promotion and a raise in just one month.

We tried to convince him we did not have $100 million. He did not have an inheritance of $10 million. Paddy was not in the FBI; he was a pediatric dentist in Denver. Eliza was not in the FBI; she had a graduate degree in design and was working in marketing and communications.

Would we still be working this hard if we had $100 million? The funds from his grandfather’s estate went to each of his four children. If his calculations were correct, that would mean his grandfather had been worth $400 million. This was definitely not the case. Anyway, no money went to the grandchildren. That’s not the way wills work. When we die, we will leave our money to our three children.

At a loss of what more to do, I told Ansley I had to go inside the house. I climbed the steps, flopped onto our bed, and instantly, as if hit in the head, fell sound asleep.

I awoke in twenty minutes, went down to the back porch. Ansley got up from her chair beside Andrew on the pavilion, walked across the lawn to me. Her face was twisted, worried. She whispered she was going to call Sheppard Pratt, ask what to do. “He keeps saying he’s Todd from Wyoming.

I sat down with Andrew, mentioned that his dream had always been to have a steady job, meet a good woman, buy a house, settle down and have kids. I pointed out that we’d be glad to help him get started.

“You mean, if I got married?”

“It doesn’t have to depend on that. I was just repeating what you’ve always told me.”

“Suppose if I can’t get married?”

“What do you mean?”

“Suppose if I were gay, then what would you do? Would you let me have my inheritance then?”

“That has nothing to do with it. Nowadays, you can get married if you’re gay.”

Ansley stepped out the kitchen door. I got up, met her as she came down the steps to the back porch. “What’d they say?” I asked.

“They said the only thing we could do is call 911.”

We walked to the pavilion. He didn’t move. Every time I asked him a question, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I don’t know who you are.”

Every time I addressed him by his name, he said, “I’m Todd from Wyoming. I’ve never seen you before.”

He stood up, holding his soiled bed roll, asked where his duffle bag was, went into the cold pantry, grabbed it, and started marching out the driveway, with me following, talking to his back, about to place my hand on his shoulder when with a sudden and powerful acceleration, he was in an all-out sprint, heels kicking up behind—out the crusher-run driveway, out, he was leaving.

I wasn’t going to lose him this time. I was going to dive for his shoulders, wrap my arms around him, maybe bring him down. I was going to tackle him and keep him here on the farm, but I was in loose dry-rotted rubber barn shoes that were about to fly off. I couldn’t go all-out. I had my toes curled in the rubber shoes to keep them on.

He took a right on Manor Road, ran a hundred yards up the hill. This did not lead anywhere—except deeper into the countryside on narrow, curvy roads. I halted. He coasted to a stop, turned around, headed for the farm.

“Well, you haven’t lost any of your speed, Andrew,” I said between deep breaths to his back.

No reply. He walked back up the driveway, directly to the pavilion, set his bedroll and duffel bag beside the recliner, lay on his side and curled up.

Still blowing, keeping my eyes on him, I sat on the steps to the back porch, yanked off the barn shoes, pulled on fresh socks, then hiking shoes—preparing for another exit. Preparing for walking miles and miles on the shoulders of roads. Preparing for running.

Preparing for an altercation.

 

Andrew Smithwick, age five, chasing seagulls on the beach of Chincoteague Island, Virginia in 1989.

 

War’s Over, Come Home is available for purchase on Amazon.

 

*     *     *

 

Help for Veterans

 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline

800-662-HELP (4357) (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service), or TTY: 1-800-487-4889

 

Make the Connection:

www.maketheconnection.net/events/homelessness/

 

Veterans Crisis Line:

www.veteranscrisisline.net

Dial 988 and then press 1

 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

www.va.gov/contact-us

 

National Call Center for Homeless Veterans:

877-424-3838

Hours: 24/7

 

MyVA411 main information line:

800-698-2411
Hours: 24/7

 

COMMENTS

2 people commented on "War’s Over, Come Home"
Feel free to join the conversation and leave a comment as well.

  • Donna J Gowin says:

    Mark, I think that Andrew has Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This is a degenerative brain disorder from repeated concussive trauma to the head. He was a sniper and sustained repeated sonic blasts from his long range rifle. I hope the military becomes more interested in evaluation and will support research to find a treatment. I am sorry for the family. This is a parents worst nightmare.

  • Mary Stickle says:

    I have always wondered about the homeless. How many are veterans like Andrew. What they did or see while in these foreign countries we are so eager to fight for, at what cost. We send them as babies, they come back to a harsh world not accepting what they were sent to do. Just turn them loose. I hope Andrew can find peace in his head.

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