"All hands on deck!" soars like a battle cry. Prompts all sweaty homeless residents, men and women, armed and unarmed, minus the infirm, to hustle through the Bravo Base entrance to a waiting mini-van in the parking area. This bustle, fueled mostly on an exaggerated sense of duty, is to unload some donated water and food, quickly and efficiently, and store it back in camp. That's it. The June sun burns into the hundreds. Jaded war vets in wheelchairs roll eyes.
Then they relax some in the shade. Funny stories exchanged. There's been lots happening lately here, so relaxation is relative, especially for the "base commander" —a spindly Nam vet (three Marine tours) with thick white hair and burnt, seen-it-all eyes, and his "co-commander," Scott Powers, a tough, compact man of 60. Both of whom are under "high stress."
See, this is Veteran's On Patrol (VOP), led by vet's advocate Michael "Lewis Arthur" Meyer, who founded this non-profit back in 2015. An arm of that, "VOP Alpha Co—Team Pulaski" had days before overdramatically claimed a child-trafficking camp existed in the desert near West Valencia Road and I-19. Local TV news broadcast the findings with sensationalistic bents, and it all went viral. Indeed, said campsite, with its underground plastic septic tank littered with kid's toys, looked wrong, like how unnatural things in the Sonoran Desert can appear deviant and creepy, especially on video.
In short, Tucson cops and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement found zero evidence of child trafficking, and cop cadaver dogs found no dead bodies, and it was widely reported. Days later, VOP found a skull in the desert near Marana and claimed it was a child's. It wasn't.
This child-trafficking red-alert crisis was brigaded by tens of thousands online, including bogus news sites like Alex Jones' InfoWars.com. Wacked online conspiracies surrounding the (debunked) child-trafficking campsite raged, claiming ties to everything from the Clinton Foundation to Mexican cartels.
Note that Arthur has cameoed at notable militia standoffs in the past, such as the 2014 Cliven Bundy's Nevada ranch, and the 2016 Oregon Wildlife Refuge debacle. To his defense, he scaled a Surprise, Arizona lightpole in 2015 to draw attention to veteran suicide. That got him arrested.
One recent Facebook video shows him motoring in the desert investigating "rape trees" and delivering "supply drops" for his "boots on the ground" outside of Tucson. He refers to himself in the third-person, responding to naysayers, "Lewis Arthur has never claimed to be a vet, so you don't have to worry about stolen valor there, never once.
And there are hundreds of veterans who come out here and step up because they know who I am."
His videos grow tedious, especially those featuring sermons on how their "guns aren't pointing at no Americans. They're pointing at the bad guys."
His is militarized cult-speak, ideology trumps fact. But on video, Arthur is tireless, smart and self-assured, charismatic and dusty good-looking enough to titillate his numbers with ghoulish militia fervor—the anti-government screeds, talk of militant stand-offs and how God's on his side (even working "miracles" in the desert for his cause) couched in virtuous endeavor, such as rescuing children and the homeless. There's a veneer of erudition and sympathy masking essential designs of conflict. It's a trickle-down Trumpian above-the-law mindset, and it appeals to factions prone to mollycoddle outrage and even war, particularly that's based on false news. It's so ridiculous now it's fish-in-a-barrel. But many Americans love hard assurances, love finding threat and intention in every rumor, and Arthur's following is growing.
To hear some VOP folk talk of these things, you'd think they found the child molesters and the children and even tortured dead bodies. They never let facts get in the way of Arthur. They believe in Arthur surely as Arthur believes in himself.
I'd first heard of this veteran's homeless camp after learning how some had patrolled Santa Rita Park on 22nd Street to rid it of drugs and dealers and how cops were cool with it. I'd also heard for months they were doing worthy work to help find, house and save homeless vets and non-vets. I go to meet Arthur, but he was gone, they said, on patrol. Anyway, "high stress, no time to talk." That's when I'm introduced to base co-commander Scott Powers, who'll give me a tour.
Bravo Base is a separate "division" of the VOP; different from Alpha Co's "high stress" recon and well-publicized call to arms. Bravo Base isn't us and them. This is really more about the holy trio of necessity: food, clothing, shelter.
There are no living green things at Bravo Base — "Camp Conklin." Except for the few women staying here, there's nothing feminine either. The air tastes like dust and dirt, and the rubber of walls built of myriad truck tires.
The entire area, which could fit inside a Kmart, looks like what you'd imagine a desert combat command to look like in, say, Iraq. The grounds are organized into modular and geodesic military tents of assorted sizes, hued in camo, war green and dirt tan. They're fashioned into living quarters (some sleep 20 on cots) and supply huts—the vet tents over here, civilian tents over there, a med tent, a pantry, women's quarters, a reception area. Outside of a couple of those tents, private quarters are strung up in nooks in shadows, blankets for shade, which one homeless vet calls "Thunderdome."
One open tent flap reveals whiffs of man-sweat and old potatoes. Inside, a couple open-shirted old-timers with concave chests decorated with faded war-time tats lie stretched out and face-up on cots. Beards tinted yellow from years of nicotine. Squint and they could be unclaimed bodies arranged neatly in morgues, lost to a frigid society. They're not. They're saved.
The med tent today shows a woman being treated for heat exhaustion.
One vet couldn't live in four walls, ever, not after Nam. Veterans On Patrol built him a little house—volunteer high school kids from PPEP YouthBuild Tucson did the heavy lifting—that sits in the center of camp, christened Mercy Huss House. The little wooden abode is symbolic too. An on-site show of putting homeless in homes. Here he's surrounded by Army tents and dirt and squalor and death and drugs and booze problems, and the train, which rumbles by morning and nights, loud as thunder. He's happy. Beats the underpass in monsoons.
Meet Fred. He doesn't offer his last name. Just Fred. He was the first vet housed here. The Gospel Rescue Mission pulled him out of the rain, literally, and dropped him here. He's never leaving, one of a few who call Bravo Base permanent. Fred rolls, mostly, in a wheelchair. But when he walks, his slow, unnatural movements make it easier to imagine his pain. He's wearing a sleeveless denim vest, late-'60s vintage, with individual patches spelling out ARMY, and a smaller one that reads, "Jane Fonda American Traitor Bitch." No shirt, heavy belt buckle, dirty jeans. Rail-thin. Fred looks to be in his 70s, easy. Must be. His face looks ghostly older. Long-faded tats on thin, rucked skin.
He's no fan of prying strangers, but he does tell me he's from Michigan. I ask if he ever saw the MC5 back in the day, and he gazes back at me, shrugs and looks away. His silence commands in that way that makes him easy to respect. Like anyone who's been off to battle, in the gory war fields, in the years of feral homelessness, with the bottle, with the speed. Fred's roommate here, Bill Wardel, from Utah, only nods. Yes, Fred commands respect. Wardel and others call him the camp patriarch. Says Fred experienced things in Nam that no human should ever have to. Ever. Says Fred got blown up too.
I imagine, above all else, in this minute, that Fred is uncomfortable with any moments of tenderness. The terrifying insides of his mind.
Bravo Base is surveilled in shifts by armed vets 24-7. A lookout platform rises above walls of truck tires stacked high in the front, facing south toward Santa Rita Park. Stands tall 660 hand-waveable American flags representing the number of vets who commit suicide each month. A giant canvas sign readable from 22nd Street reads, "Veteran suicides 22 per day."
The camp sits on 20th Street, cattycorner to Santa Rita park on the southeastern edge of the gentrified Armory Park neighborhood. Gas-fueled generators provide Bravo's electricity now, and, soon, solar panels—everything off grid. Water and food are donated, including the water for the outdoor shower. The Bravo Base "Camp Conklin" Facebook callouts are many, and people and businesses respond in kind with gift cards and gas. Don't accept cash. Hardware and Metal Specialists next door provides the land, and they even donated water and power until a few months ago. They hope to again once their business picks up. Today locals donated pizzas and ice cream, and days before that Bravo provided a massive spaghetti dinner and fed the homeless at Santa Rita park.
I hear co-commander Powers' voice in my ear rattling details of Bravo Base. The camp is run military-like because that's who they are as people, how they've been shaped. It's like there's little else in life for Powers. He was homeless and rescued. Commander Harrison was homeless and rescued. So many vets homeless and rescued here since 2015. Hundreds.
"It is a base," Powers says. Military run, at least run in a military manner. It's not affiliated with the U.S. Armed Forces in any way. VOP is self-governing. Powers himself says he's off the grid. But where there are no checks and balances, who oversees those who seem to operate above the law? So far, VOP have been working in tandem with the cops, who sometimes bring homeless folk to the camp, along with other veteran outreach groups, rehab centers, and health organizations like Community Bridges Inc.
A medical marijuana card allows you to "smoke on base," in a designated area. No other drugs allowed unless you're on methadone. "Meth heads get kicked out," Powers says. "If you're caught stealin' and lyin' and cheatin', you're out. All that good shit."
Addictions or no, this isn't rehab, and Powers asserts they aren't babysitters. Powers calls it a staging area for the next phase of a homeless vet's life, and that includes helping with housing, rehab and personal responsibilities. "We got drug abusers, alcohol problems, mental dysfunctionality, mental illness, physical infirmities. They're safe here, even if they fall off the wagon. If the vet has a case worker, it's up to us to make a report as to their behavior."
So the main missive at Bravo Base is suicide prevention and awareness, and saving lives of vets. They don't necessarily turn anyone away, either, but one must show interest in helping themselves. He says they verify military backgrounds and check records of incoming so as not to let in "child molesters or anyone with serious arrest warrants. We do a psych eval too. We have doctors who come and donate time."
Right now, in early June, they're housing more non-vets than vets, 62 people total. But they're not all here today. Powers explains that "some got their benefits checks, so they're out there playing. Spreading their legs, feeding their addictions, whatever."
It's easy to undrstand the allure of the armed forces code—unit, corps, God, country—for the broken and the lost whose backgrounds are enhanced by military, PTSD and fragmented childhoods, these living homages to bloody-booted military ideals that shaped them. Conversations with many here reveal talk of courage and patriotism and duty, and other easily digestible platitudes as rules for success. The military family idea that all families serve as one. Even if Bravo Base and Veterans on Patrol offers everyone—including and especially the commander and co-commander—a chance to continue living an antiquated logic, a kind of delusion, they're still advancing a greater good. Some of these people would be dead without them.
At one time, some of these vets were true warriors, heroes. Now, acting in the very same paradigm under a much different, peacetime context, they're vigilantes. Chasing drug dealers from Santa Rita Park while armed is a form of vigilantism. So's tracking down child-traffickers in the desert. Powers prefers the militia-ready buzz term "oath keepers" over vigilantism.
"This is the wild west, man," Powers says. "You got the bad guys out there killing people? By God, we're gonna take care of that. We're keeping our oath to this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and now I don't care if it's my next-door neighbor dealing drugs to kids ... he's hurting innocent children. Man, I will take care of that in a most expedient manner, and it doesn't always have to be violence."
Hard to believe but Powers is compassionate. He's been homeless. He got out of the service 30 years ago, and he's been homeless off and on since. He was married. He has two daughters, 36 and 20. "But where I'm at now—my future's already set. I'll be fine, so it's not the money thing. I'm still serving my country. Still doing it. Full-time job. This is being responsible. This is how you do it."
He's fastidious, attentive to hygiene; fingernails, facial hair. He's fit. "I'm in top shape. I take nothing. I'm healthy, I don't take no pills, no medications, no aspirin. Drink lots of water. Don't drink alcohol. I keep myself healthy and clean."
He's part Sergeant Hulka and part that guy you'd want on your side if the shit comes down. And that's just it. These guys, vets like Harrison and Powers, the sense is all they want is to make the world better, and to believe in something greater than themselves, but it's like the government used them up and threw them away.
Born in Alamogordo, New Mexico to Native American dad and Scottish-Irish mom, Powers started martial arts at age five. By 17 he was third-degree black belt. His mom was an alcoholic, he says, and more than happy to sign the enlistment papers, so Powers found himself on active duty two days after he turned 17.
"I chose to be a Green Beret when I was a kid," he says, "1968. John Wayne. Green Berets. I was too young for Nam—I wanted to go to Vietnam. I went in in '76-November 24, 1976."
The guerilla warfare came later, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador and Colombia. "We were chasing Pablo Escobar around Colombia; I was Special Operations Command." He points to his cap. "That's what the patch is—Special Forces. Class 482. I've got all my benefits. Never went to jail. Never got arrested. DUI, 1990; I was guilty and I paid all my shit, and I was done, that's it."
Then came meth. Makes sense how soldiers are attracted to the drug. It's a way to manufacture head-crank adrenalins, simulate rapid-fire dramas. "After 12 years in the military, I was teaching martial arts at two schools: one in Phoenix, one in Mesa. This guy brought me something, and it kept me up for four days going, 'Ooh ooh, I like that.'"
Four years later, he fell apart. Lost everything, and he was in deep. "But I was smart enough to not get arrested," he adds. "I have no criminal record whatsoever. I was smart because of my military training. I had tapes of where they were going to do my surveillance, and I knew where they were going to hit me two days ahead ... they stashed half an ounce of cocaine in my truck. The cops." He pauses. "This is back then, my drug years."
Powers also spent two years as a deputy sheriff in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and has a brother who's a bishop in a Tucson Mormon church.
Jim Harrison (not the same Harrison as camp commander James Harrison), or "BBQ Jim," is part of a four-person over-watch committee at VOP, above the commanders. People who volunteer big to VOP.
There's no money. Jim met the Bravo folks while donating food from Holy Smokin' Butts BBQ, where he sometimes cuts meat. "I have a pension," he tells me. "I don't need." The unarmed gent has a big presence, ultra-confident, reveals little of himself, but seems considerate. He's a cancer survivor—a ruptured tumor in his head nearly killed him. ("People ask why I'm so happy. Well, I've already seen death twice.")
Harrison is retired law enforcement. Today I watch him co-lead a group meeting with the 40 or so residents gathered. He has an air of responsibility about him, commands respect. Residents—the vets and "civilians"—are talked at like prisoners and soldiers, or children. ("Is it not better than the park, than the tunnel? When you get your own house out there, you're gonna have to clean up after your ass.") Talk ranges from Agent Orange poisoning to trash cleanup to assuming personal responsibility.
Some are told to stand and be recognized for the work they're contributing, like the wood floors inside a newly erected vet's tent.
Takeaways from this weekly gathering? You don't sweat, you don't eat. Everyone contributes something, unless you sit in a wheelchair.
Harrison later tells me about the cognitive thinking workshops he'll lead for the homeless here, basic programs to influence decision making, things he worked on with prisoners in the past. "If we don't teach them how to cope, who will? That's why I'm here. I can help build a life."
There are lots of volunteers, more coming now than going, I'm told. One woman, 37, who doesn't want her named used, says she's got four years clean from heroin, and she just started a job in public health service, a badly needed job. Had nowhere to go. Her teen daughter had run away, and VOP folks aided in finding her. Now she's been volunteering here for 13 months. There are many other volunteers, she says, in Bravo Base and Alpha VOP Co. who wish to remain nameless.
Resignation to an existence with others whose only commonalities are military or homelessness or both. Sometimes that isn't much. But it makes Bravo, as homeless vet G. Cross tells me, a family. Evenings are often spent around a fire, people conversing, old school.
Cross has been here eight days. It's 107 degrees, he's overweight and he's wearing a thick, oversized white wool sweater. It earns him ridicule on the grounds. He keeps the sweater wet to stay cool. He's all about survival tactics. If I had to guess, I'd say he's one of few who lean to the left here.
He walks me over to the tent he shares with a dozen or so others. Talks about the service, working on nuclear missiles. He arrived at Bravo Base after camping out at Santa Rita Park. He'd been living in Sonora, Mexico and had come to Tucson seeking medical treatment, and for depression. Hit the VA hospital here, because, he says, it treats veterans much better than the one in Phoenix, "where you could die waiting."
Cross is kind, admittedly lost, pretty soft-spoken. I get the feeling he never mattered enough to anyone to be a focus of concern. He says, "How are you gonna get started if you have no one and no home? People don't hire people who are 58-and-a-half. What are my skills? I can drive. I can speak Farsi, Spanish."
He's hanging on until November, when his military benefits kick in. Until then he's got nothing.
Says he'd moved from his Arizona home to Sonora because it was cheaper to live. Says lots of vets do that now. It's becoming a thing. Vets can't find work stateside so they go to Mexico. That or homelessness.
He leads to Bravo's outdoor "field shower." He'd just repaired it, easier flow for the water bag mounted above, and he'd made it more usable, extra room, added some waterproof flooring he'd found. He's proud of it. He talks about creating a garden in back, using shower gray water.
Joey Prouse is a handsome 19-year-old from Indiana who's been at Bravo Base eight days with his mother and 20-year-old brother. He wears a camo cap, Nike T-shirt and a silver crucifix around his neck, and he's the youngest Bravo resident. He's keeping watch on his hand-licking dog, a friendly shepherd mix called Savannah, while mom and brother work brand new jobs at Wendy's. His story unfolds: Dad was a vanishing drunk who found jail homier than freedom. Mom's job back home was good, they owned their trailer, but life was wearing on her health. They cashed out, packed up and moved to Tucson three months ago to stay with a relative, who last month kicked them out to the street. After blowing through all their money and landing in Santa Rita Park, sleeping in the car, mom saw the camp, walked over and asked if they could stay. Joey starts the following day working on fences for $10 an hour. Maybe, they'll soon have enough to move on and get a place of their own. Joey seems to think so.
Powers points to the platform in the front that overlooks Santa Rita Park. He says, "That's our high outlook up there. We can sit up there with a .50 cal if we want to, and watch the whole park. Yeah, we have a couple drones too. Most everybody, as far as all the vets, you know, we're on board, but civilians don't have a fucking clue."
Soon dusk creeps in over the little baseball game assembled over across the stacked tires and American flags and military tents at Santa Rita Park, kids and parents and an air of festivity. The Union Pacific train passes on the camp's eastside and Cross goes to stand close to it in his big wool sweater. The train roars and thumps, and it's unsettling. As unsettling as the tales of sorrow and distress inside the camp, the disturbing and the banal. The train slows to a crawl, and I think about how no one here ever bats an eye, as if we're all victims of the same damn conspiracy.