'We owe it to them:' One woman's mission to help veterans living in isolation

FORKS, Wash. -- In the expansive wilderness of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, there are an untold number of people living in isolation.

Among them – heroes who once served their country so proudly.

“There are vets sprinkled all over the Olympic Peninsula,” said Cheri Tinker, driving her Jeep along a winding forest road in Clallam County. “It horrified me how many vets are out in the woods – how many vets are out there that no one is helping.”

Tinker often finds herself in the woods near Forks, Wash., in search of veterans living off the grid. Some, she said, go there to escape society. Others, to escape the battles they still fight in their own minds.

“There’s a guy that has been out in the woods in the Hoh since 1972,” she said. “When I met him, he was living off barnacles. Off barnacles! This thin little wisp of a man with a straggly beard. He was a Navy Corpsman at 18. He was on a boat right off Vietnam and they were bringing all those injured and dead soldiers onto his boat. He saw such horror – I can’t even imagine."

For more than a decade, Tinker has made it her personal mission to help veterans living on the peninsula. While many turn down the help she has to offer, content with living a life of isolation, others jump at the chance to return to society and rebuild their lives.

In 2009, with the help of $500,000 in funding secured by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash), Cheri helped to launch Sarge’s Place, a 12-room transitional housing facility for homeless veterans in the town of Forks.

"Facilities like Sarge's Place serve a critical role in our communities, and I will continue fighting for funding as we work to end veteran homelessness for once and for all," said Sen. Murray, the daughter of a World War II veteran and a senior member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Kent Larsen, a 19-year veteran of the Marines who did tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is among those who’ve lived at Sarge’s Place. He was homeless, drug-addicted, and battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when the VA sent him to see Cheri.

“I was not in a good place,” he said. “And to tell you straight up, I’m glad she was there because I couldn’t have done it without her.”

“Cheri Tinker, with what I was going through, she saved my life,” he said.

Veterans who come to Sarge’s Place receive support from a full-time case manager and social worker while being connected to local resources that help them find more permanent housing and employment.

Michael Polanec, 28, said he came into the program after someone found him sitting on a park bench in the rain in Sequim.

The Army veteran said had recently been laid off from his job at Walmart and was without a place to live.

“It’s done a lot for me, you know,” he said. “This is just better than being out there in the rain. It’s given me a place to come home, wind down if I need to, if I’ve been out job hunting all day.”

After moving to Oregon to undergo treatment for his PTSD, Kent Larsen returned to Sarge’s Place to accept a job as house manager. He now lives in a small apartment on the bottom floor.

He said some veterans who come into the program have a hard time adjusting – especially those who come from the woods. Being back in society, surrounded by four walls can be an unfamiliar feeling.

“They feel like they’re cooped up at times,” he said. “But they get through it.”

Cheri said she knew when she first started Sarge’s Place that many of the peninsula’s homeless veterans would refuse to live there. Still, she finds herself in the woods, offering them help anyway – often with a pack of cigarettes in her pocket to help build rapport.

“We owe it to them,” she said. “Anybody that signs up for the military has signed on the dotted line, and they say, “I am willing to die for my country. That’s really what that signature means. And that’s powerful to me. That’s respect. If I can help them in any fashion, it’s my duty as an American.”