On the job as a member of the Coast Guard, Ryan Kazmarek said he learned responsibility and discipline. But when he was off duty, the Dundalk man struggled with a "work hard, party hard lifestyle" that led him to alcoholism and — after he left the service — homelessness.
To get back on his feet, Kazmarek joined Helping Up Mission, a Baltimore homeless shelter that provides housing, food and services to help its 500 members through long-term addiction recovery.
Of that group, about 10 percent are military veterans, and Helping Up served a Veterans Day steak dinner Monday night to thank them for their service.
After leading the group in prayer before dinner, Michael Sheppard talked about the similarities between his time in the Army National Guard and the homeless shelter. He said both have enriched his life and helped him grow as a person.
"I've learned I'm here for a purpose," Sheppard said after clearing his plate of steak and mashed potatoes. "I don't have to pose. I see myself reflected in everybody I meet. There's great unity here."
Before falling into addiction, Richard Dixon served in the Army for four years in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he jokes that he saw temperatures "100 below zero." Like several of the mission's members, he's now taking classes at the North American Trade School. He plans to become a welder, move to North Dakota and work in the oil industry after graduating from the yearlong mission program.
Tom Bond, the mission's director of programs, went through the shelter's program himself. He said it's often impossible to tell whether a member is a veteran. But he said the veterans tend to be more successful because they're used to a highly structured environment with strict expectations.
"They get it a little quicker," he said. "They've been acclimated to the culture. Generally speaking, they're easier to deal with."
Bronon Avery, who has been at the mission for less than a week, is already setting his sights on rejoining the Marines after he completes his year at the shelter.
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"I'd like to be a drill instructor," he said. "Help them work out, get in shape and help them build up their confidence."
The homeless veterans all say both experiences have challenged them to push themselves physically and spiritually.
"It teaches you discipline — doing something foreign, that you didn't want to do but had to do," said Sheppard, who has a wife and children in Randallstown.
In the Coast Guard, Kazmarek said, he jumped out of helicopters. It was a thrilling experience for a young man who lacked direction in life but nowhere near as difficult as settling down and defeating an addiction.
"You're there for a totally different purpose," Kazmarek said. "You're trying to save somebody else's life in the military. Now I'm trying to save my own."