Veteran comes full circle

Michael Robinson (right) shares a laugh with Yorkay Young, a resident, while serving meals during a recent lunch at the Ralph H. Johnson VA medical center.

For 20 years, countless people urged Michael Robinson to get help, to beat the addictions that trapped him in a cycle of homelessness and incarceration.

He never did though, not with much resolve anyway, not after endless drinking and smoking crack, not after becoming homeless and sleeping wherever his highs dumped him, not after three stints in prison, not even after abandoning his children. And himself.

It wasn’t until his 50th birthday approached and the U.S. Army veteran sat in the back of a police squad car — again — that he decided to really commit to change.

Five years later, Robinson is traversing a new path, one toward helping other veterans who face homelessness and addictions, men he can relate to all too well.

Robinson grew up a middle-class kid in California before joining the Army. He figured he’d do like his own Air Force father and devote his career to service and then retire.

It didn’t work out that way.

Robinson worked as a clerk and was sent to Germany where, like lots of soldiers, he passed his off time hanging out and drinking. He was 18 years old.

While there, he met a woman in his unit and began dating her. When she got pregnant, they married.

Soon after, he transferred to Fort Jackson in Columbia to be closer to her hometown of Charleston. But when he was caught in 1983 violating Army fraternization policies with a female trainee, he received a general discharge under honorable conditions.

Frustrated, he moved to Charleston to work a low-paying job at a store and fed his family with food stamps.

Not long after, he and his wife had a second child and split up. He began sleeping in his car. But after it was repossessed, he landed at Crisis Ministries’ homeless shelter.

He also began smoking crack. It was cheap, and it offered a momentary refuge.

As he smoked and drank more, he cared less.

He also discovered a way to support his addictions: He’d break into cars and steal what he could. Then, he’d get high.

Sometimes he’d panhandle downtown, then buy crack with someone else’s generosity.

He’d get so high for so long that he’d sleep wherever he stopped.

Countless times, he landed in the county jail. Three times, he spent longer stints in prison for breaking and entering cars.

So went his 20-year cycle: use drugs, get arrested, go to jail or prison, stop using, get a job, become frustrated by something, start using again, get arrested ...

Charleston police knew him by name. When he’d leave the county jail on Leeds Avenue, the guards would say things like, “We’ll keep the bed warm for you!”

One officer always asked him: “When are you going to give this up?”

Robinson had no intention of giving anything up.

Not that he didn’t try from time to time. In the 1990s, he took part in the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center’s Substance Abuse Treatment Clinic. Once, he even completed Charleston County’s drug court.

But the cycle gripped Robinson too tightly.

One night, he stumbled onto the front steps of a church, crack still in the pipe hidden in his pocket. After days without sleep, binging on drugs, he collapsed.

Hours later, he awoke. Nobody had mugged him. Nobody called the police.

“Thank you, Jesus!” he prayed. And smoked the rest of his crack before moving on.

“Drug addiction is a progressive disease,” he says today, one that consumed his life.

He figures he spent 65 percent of those years locked up. He spent 40 percent of the rest homeless — by choice.

He didn’t want the responsibilities of rent or working or relationships. Robinson just wanted to get drunk or high.

Sam Pisasale first spotted Robinson begging for money and sleeping in abandoned buildings, sometimes in Marion Square, other times “wherever he put his head down.”

He’d watch the man, curious about his story.

In time, they talked. Pisasale would buy Robinson a meal.

Then, he hired Robinson to help with his contracting business, painting and doing other work. Robinson proved to be a smart guy and a hard worker — until he started using again.

“What are you doing?” Pisasale would ask. “You are so much more than this.”

Robinson was peering into a car to see what he could steal that early morning in 2008. An officer arrested him.

It was off Coming Street, just a few blocks from the local VA medical center where Robinson now works. Sitting in back of the squad car, about to face yet another criminal charge, Robinson thought about his life.

He was nearing 50.

“I’ve let my parents down, I’ve let my children down, and I’ve let myself down,” he recalls thinking. “There has to be a better way of life.”

After several months in jail, Robinson was released. He returned to the VA medical center’s Substance Abuse Treatment Clinic, a structured outpatient program. He was still on probation.

“This time, it was what Michael Angelo Robinson wanted to do,” he recalls. “You can’t get clean and sober unless you really want to get clean and sober.”

Robinson enrolled at Trident Technical College, nervous about whether a 50-year-old man with his history could succeed.

This spring, he will receive his associate’s degree in human services with an emphasis in alcohol and substance abuse. He might pursue becoming a licensed addictions counselor.

In the meantime, he began working in the VA hospital’s nutrition services. There, he found his calling serving other veterans.

His job includes many duties, including delivering meals to hospitalized veterans and, perhaps his favorite, delivering meals to the men in the VA hospital’s nursing home wing.

Next up: In a week, he’ll take on a new position as a peer support specialist apprentice, meaning he’ll train to help other veterans facing the same cycle he finally escaped.

The VA is bolstering its peer support specialist ranks as part of a larger effort to better serve veterans facing homelessness, mental illnesses and substance abuse, says Tonya Lobbestael, the medical center’s spokeswoman.

“There is tons of help at the VA if you want the help,” Robinson says. “But you have to be determined to make it happen.”

Robinson will advocate for veterans in treatment who have housing and other needs, or who just need to talk. He can relate to their struggles in a way others cannot.

“My story is like every other recovering alcoholic and addict,” he says.

He turns 53 next month and just bought his first house. He married his new wife, Lisa, and has tried to make amends with his children. He’s also become a grandfather.

“For the better part of 20 years that I was on drugs and alcohol, I had people who just didn’t give up on me,” Robinson says. “I had nothing but support.”

Now, several years into his own recovery, he wants to help others as people like Pisasale helped him all those years.

He recalls attending the VA’s Stand Down Against Homelessness event one year and receiving a sleeping bag and duffle bag that he still owns.

But on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, he’ll be working the event to help others for a second year.

“I have a deep passion to do this,” he says. “I feel it’s what the good Lord wants me to do and is why I’m not dead.”

He doesn’t consider his a success story. He just thanks God for having a plan for him.

Pisasale, however, says Robinson doesn’t give himself enough credit.

“He’s my hero,” Pisasale says. “He made it.”

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