Welcome home, Robert

by Ashley Kuenstler

When he stepped into his new home, Robert Lawless' first reaction was to throw his hands in the air and shout, "Yes!" Instead he turned quietly from the others, raised his hands to his face and breathed, "Thank God, I'm finally home."

Moving into St. Louis Salvation Army's Veterans Residence means a warm, safe place to sleep, a community Robert can rely on, and an environment where he can continue in sobriety after more than 40 years of alcohol and drug abuse.

Robert was introduced to alcohol and marijuana at age 13. By 17, he had been expelled from high school.

"It was the ‘70s," he said. "This was during Vietnam, the draft was going on, brothers and uncles and friends were dying left and right, and we didn't expect to live past 30. So, we figured, ‘Why pay attention? Why even try? What's the point?'"

Two weeks after his expulsion Robert and a friend walked into a Naval recruiting center and enlisted. Three months later he was in boot camp. Not long after that he was aboard the USS Pollack as an auxiliary machinist mate charged with monitoring the submarine's atmospheric controls and hydraulics.

His four years of duty took him across the world including Hawaii, Guam, The Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and Russia.

"My experience in the Navy was great, but it stepped up my drinking and drug use," Robert said. "I was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning after a trip to Russia and had three DUIs by the time I was 21. There was definitely a problem."

After returning from duty, determined to get his life on track, Robert hiked the Appalachian Trail and enrolled in film school.

"And then things got worse," he said. "I flunked out of school, and both of my parents died. I was devastated. I didn't know what else to do but drink and do drugs to stop the pain."

Robert sought refuge at the Oxford House rehabilitation center.

"I was there for 13 months and ended up staying sober for seven years," he said. "I started working with the Department of Mental Health in the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division, even helping to open other Oxford Houses."

By 2002 Robert was on his third marriage and had relapsed. Together with their two daughters, Robert and his wife relocated to Florida. He was able to stay sober for two more years before falling into crack cocaine.

"It nearly killed me," he said. "And it ruined my marriage. 

After enrolling in the Veterans Administration healthcare system in Florida, Robert was told by a sponsor to seek out The Salvation Army.

In 2007 after completing The Salvation Army Center of Hope's program in West Palm Beach, Fla., Robert returned to St. Louis for a fresh start. He was able to get a decent job with a plumber and pipefitters union.

"And then I hurt my back on the job," he said. "I was prescribed opiates for the first time, and it was all downhill from there. Soon enough I was without a place to live, crashing with my niece and stealing her prescription medicine... Soon it wasn't about treating my back pain; it was about treating what was going on inside of me. That's what I was medicating."

On November 7, 2011, Robert hit rock bottom.

"I was taking prescription medication and supplementing that with whatever I could find on the street," he said. "It was all too much for me to deal with, so I tried to kill myself. It was both the best and worst thing that could have happened."

Robert was admitted to the John Cochran VA Medical Center psych ward the next day. After he got out, with no money and nowhere to live, he started sleeping in cars and under pine trees. By July 2012 he was back in the hospital.

"I was really running out of hope at this point," he said, "and then the program director at the VA Center recommended The Salvation Army. I moved into the Harbor Light and started getting treatment for my opiate addiction."

After meeting with a therapist, Robert said he was completely honest for the first time about what happened to him in the Navy.

"I finally realized that without being honest and putting everything on the table, I was never going to completely recover," he said. "I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and am finally getting the help I really need."

Robert has real hope for the first time in his life.

"I owe everything to The Salvation Army," he said. "I'm taking the medication I need, the courses I need, and I'm surrounded by a support system that has never made me feel like less of a person."

With the addition of the new St. Louis Veterans' Residence, Robert will get even more support on his road to recovery, and he will finally have the stability he needs to see his daughters again.

In the next five years, Robert hopes to return to southern Florida to join his children and work for The Salvation Army there. He also hopes to put to use the communications degree he has earned from Lindenwood University during his time in St. Louis.

"I can't wait to give back to the organization who has given so much to me!" he said.


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