BY MARK SAXENMEYER
At the age of two, doctors diagnosed Sheila Nelson with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune and inflammatory disease that became so extreme she required a high level of care “pretty much her entire life,” says Vickie Nelson, Sheila’s sister.
Sheila’s immune system would attack the healthy cells in her body by mistake, causing painful swelling and stiffness. The condition eventually overtook every joint of Sheila’s body, limiting her every movement.
“Her hands were curled and stuck in place,” Vickie explains. “Her fingernails would grow into her palm. The pain got progressively worse as she got older.
“It wasn’t always that way but she hadn’t walked since she was five-years-old. She needed help with bathroom needs, getting her teeth brushed, preparing her food, all of that,” Vickie says. Sheila relied on an electric wheelchair for mobility.
(Above) Sheila with a doctor at the University of Minnesota in 1960; (Below) Steve, Sheila and Vickie Nelson at home in 1959
Yet growing up in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, the youngest of three children, Sheila was mentally sharp. She graduated (more…)
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.”