Life on the Street: Homeless Vietnam Veteran Fights Cancer

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John Buckingham, 62, a homeless Vietnam veteran, stands outside of a San Francisco grocery store. He lives on the streets and is fighting cancer. (Nick Arce/KQED)

Editor’s Note: For the nearly three million Americans who served in Vietnam, more likely than death in combat was a post-war life on the street. On a single night in 2013, more than 15,000 homeless Californians were veterans, many of whom served in Vietnam. As part of our ongoing health series called Vital Signs, we’re spending the month hearing from homeless Californians. John Buckingham is a 62-year-old homeless Vietnam vet living with cancer on the streets of San Francisco. He talks to us about his battle with illness. Reporter: Nick Arce

By John Buckingham

You know, I can be walking and all of a sudden I’ll get this real heavy pain in my body. I mean, like an earthquake hitting the ground and my whole body shakes. And then, all of sudden, I won’t feel so hot. I’ll feel like these cold and hot flashes. And I’ll see things.

It’s all because of the war. Because of Agent Orange.

There are roughly 1,845,000 veterans living in the state, according to the California Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Veterans are far more likely to experience homelessness than other Americans,” states the US Department of Housing and Urban Development website.

I’m a Vietnam vet. I don’t look my age. I don’t act my age. And I left that war behind me. There’s too many skeletons I do not like talking about because it brings up nightmares that I react to. You know, they got me on medications for that.

My illness is pancreatic cancer and bone marrow cancer.

I told my doctor I said, there ain’t nothing you can do. I already know it. But there’s also a hope that they can find a cure to help the young ones that are battling the same disease.

The hardest thing is: not knowing what’s going to happen to you. That’s the hardest thing. What happens after you’re gone? Whose heart did you touch? Did you get it done right? Is there anything that you could have done better?

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This graphic shows data for veterans who spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing facility between October 1, 2009 and September 30, 2010. (Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

They give me these dang gone pills. And I tell you, they make you tired at times, but they amp you up. I don’t feel the pain as much. It numbs my whole system.

People think I’m drunk or high. Yeah, I’m high; I’m high on pills that the medical world give ya.

[A few weeks ago,] I was asleep. I woke up. My medicine, my bag was gone. The medicine for my cancer itself. Who the hell took it? Some other white guy–who’s on speed.

I’m the poor guy you don’t hear about. You don’t want to know about. Yes, you need to know about. Because you walk across my path all the day. Every day. You will see me; but will you know me?

Listen to Buckingham’s story:

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