Herold Noel’s War At Home
By Michael Slenske
Michael Slenske writes SMITH’s Back Home From Iraq column
What’s the difference between a tank fueler working in Iraq for Halliburton and a grunt doing the same job for the United States Army? One gets a six-figure salary; the other gets a rifle and a steady supply of MREs. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess who’s more likely to end up homeless upon returning from the war. (Hint: It’s not the one with the fat KBR pay stubs.) Just ask Herold Noel.
After spending eight months in Iraq—during which time he took part in the initial push to the Baghdad Airport as a fueler with the 3rd Infantry, 7th Cavalry, out of Fort Stewart, Georgia—Noel returned home to Savannah in August 2003 as an unemployed 24-year-old with few options. Having already extended his enlistment beyond the standard four-year contract, he was told he’d have re-enlist if he wanted back into the army. With a wife and three children to support, he tried finding a civilian job as a commercial fueler (even with Halliburton). Unfortunately, his vet status didn’t broaden his employment opportunities. Running out of time, luck, and money, Noel packed up his family and went to live in a tiny bedroom in his mother-in-law’s apartment in Brooklyn, the borough in which he was born.
Unemployment wasn’t the only problem dogging Noel, who also returned with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I was always jumping out of my sleep, scaring the kids, walking around the house in the middle of the night like I’m looking for something—so I had to move out,” says Noel, who would later become the subject of the award-winning documentary When I Came Home, which was just released on DVD. “After that, I was on the road. I was in the car, sleeping everywhere I could sleep. Sometimes, I’d just go up on the roof of a building. I was roughing it.” Noel ended up roughing it on the streets of New York for a year—all the while trying to get disability and housing benefits from the V.A. After six months, he finally got his disability payments, but it took a year for him to get off the streets, and that happened only with the help of an anonymous donor. “They are creating terrorists,” he says, “because they don’t pay us any mind.”
With some 600 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan estimated to be living on the streets—and with the president calling for the deployment of more than 20,000 additional troops in the so-called surge —Noel is engaging in another war, speaking to high-school and college students, rap stars, and politicians to raise awareness about this new generation of homeless vets. His mission is to help avoid what happened after Vietnam, a war that left 150,000 troops homeless after the fighting stopped.
Did you always know you wanted to join the military?
I didn’t always know, but at that time I was 19, I was going to New York City Technical College [in downtown Brooklyn], I had two kids. And I was living with my mother. So what’s the best thing for me to do? Join the military and have my own home, right?
Did you ever think you’d go to war?
Nope. It was before 9/11, before all of that. It never crossed my mind.
And after 9/11?
Yes. I did, but I didn’t want to believe it. I was stationed in Korea when 9/11 happened. After Korea, I was stationed in Fort Stewart. We were supposed to go to Kuwait for training, but everybody knew we were going to war. I was about to leave the military because my time was up. But me trying to be a whole horse soldier and all that, I didn’t want my friends to go to war and I’m not there. I’m not a person who likes to hear about shit; I like to be in the midst of shit, so I joined.
Operationally, what were you doing over there?
We were the spearheads of the war. Our mission was to take over Baghdad Airport. Every other unit was attached to us. It was March 2003. The president gave Saddam 24 hours to get out, but everybody knew Saddam wasn’t going nowhere. The night before we went in, we heard the air force dropping bombs. My sergeant was crying and talking about “those are people out there.” Daylight came, we was in front of a berm before Iraq. We bust the berm, and all we see is T72 tanks. We see a whole bunch of those blown up, bodies hanging out of them. So I was basically happy, we didn’t have to bust out our guns, because I was in a support platoon, which consists of mechanics, fuelers, the people that fill up the Apaches and the tanks.
How is that job?
Sounds easy, but shit, it’s far from it. I only chose the job because women did it, but I was sadly mistaken. They put me in a Cav unit. It was all men. It was, like, the second or third day—I know I didn’t sleep for two or three days—and I was driving the whole time, since I was the lowest rank. We were about to hit the hard turf, and we were almost there, sitting by the truck, smoking a cigarette, just bullshitting, when a mortar landed right in the middle of us. Everybody took off running, and all you heard was BOOM! But it dug so deep in the sand that all you saw was sand shooting out. Next thing you know, everyone jumped in their trucks and just scattered. I didn’t know I could move that quick. My sergeant was driving, and he had his headphones on. And another mortar blew up right by our truck, and I’m in a fucking fuel truck. I was, like, “Move the fucking truck!” We take off; our truck gets stuck in the sand. Then a big 88—it’s like a big-ass unarmed pickup truck for broken-down tanks—slid right in front of us. If we took five seconds more, we all would have been dead.
So how did that play on your mind through the course of the war?
I thought the government sent me there to die. That was my first reaction: “I’m going to die.”
It felt like a suicide mission?
Yes. Because we were not supposed to see that shit. I’m a support platoon; you have to protect us so we can fill you up. After that day, all we were getting was attacked. And I’m talking for the whole eight months we were there, even when we were leaving.
And how did that play on you when you came back?
When I came back, it was unreal to me because I was supposed to be dead. That story I just told you—that was one event, just one of many. And that’s just the beginning, just a light coat. I didn’t even tell you the horror. When I first got back, I couldn’t believe I was alive. I couldn’t believe I was looking at people. I couldn’t believe I was hugging my kids. I couldn’t even touch my kids at a point, because I had seen kids die over there. I was looking at a little girl in Iraq who got her head blown off, and I’m looking at my daughter. The girl was the same age as my daughter.
How soon after you out-processed did you fall upon hard times?
It wasn’t right after. When I got out, I was planning on going back in. So I stayed in Georgia for a while. I was going to go to a recruiting station in Savannah and just go back in. They told me I had to get out to go back in.
Why did you want to go back right away?
That’s all I knew. I seen the horror. I’ve been there, I can’t believe I’m alive, but that’s what I know. I tried it, I got out, stayed, I tried to get a job as a fueler on the civilian side. They told me I needed a CDL [Commercial Drivers License]. In Georgia, jobs are scarce. Trying to look for factory jobs is tough, so I tried to become a truck driver, but they were telling me you had to go to school for, like, 16 months out of state. Then I tried to work for Halliburton.
Yeah, I put in my application to work for Halliburton, because they were paying, like, $20,000 a month in Iraq, and the bonus is like, $50,000. So in, like, six months, you’ll have over $100,000 in your bank account, and I know people working for Halliburton right now.
So what happened?
They accepted my application; I got approved. You got to go through this whole process—go to Texas, do some training—then they send you off.
And you did all that?
No. I was in Georgia. They gave me a letter, my ticket. I packed my bag. We were getting ready to go, so I called the guy again, just making sure of things. I asked, “What kind of weapon do you give us?”
What did he say?
He said, “No, you don’t get weapons.” I was, like, “What? I’ve been over there. You want me to go over there with no weapon and just a gas mask?” So I hung up the phone. I didn’t use the ticket. So they tried to get me some security job, tried to refer to some other agency, but I was, like, “No.”
What did you do then?
Money was running low, and I was paying rent. I called family members who told me to come to New York. So I came to New York. I was reading a brochure about V.A., and it said you could get education benefits, disability benefits, and I do have shrapnel in my knees, and I need a home. “Can you help me?” They asked, “Do you have a job?” And I was, like, “No, I don’t, but I still need a place to stay.” So they told me to go to the shelter. They told me I needed to stay in the shelter for a while to get Section 8. So I went through that, and I went to DHS [Department of Homeless Services], and they said they did have a DHS just for veterans, but they cut that program off a long time ago. So I said, “What am I supposed to do now? I’ve got kids, a wife, a new baby—come on, I need a place to stay.” But they said they can’t help me, and they referred me back to the shelter.
What drove you to start sleeping in your car?
The doctors call it post-traumatic stress disorder. I felt like less of a man just having to go through this. I’m in my sister-in-law’s house, and she has kids. She had to move those kids out of the room we were staying in, now I was going through my own little issues—my wife says I’m scaring the kids, so I had to move out. I had to leave. They allowed my wife and my youngest son to stay there, but my other two kids wasn’t by my wife. I had custody of them and had to take my kids with me, so I had to move them back to West Palm Beach, back to their mother. She bought the tickets for me so they could move back down there.
What’s the spectrum of where you would stay in a week?
Every night, I would stay somewhere different. Sometimes I would stay at my aunt’s place just to take a bath, but I wouldn’t let anyone know what I’m going through—you feel me? Because everybody knows I just came out of the army. Now, what am I going to tell them, I’m on the street?
Were you embarrassed?
Hell, yeah! Wouldn’t you feel embarrassed?
At a certain point, for sure.
If you went through what I went through, seeing kids getting killed, looking at death in the eyeball, and you came back alive, and you feel like you went through all that for a reason… They trained me to be a killer. Now you telling me you’re going to give this killer nothing, and you’re going to put me on the fucking street? So once I got rid of my kids and I knew my wife was staying with my mother-in-law, I fucking snapped. This is the part you didn’t see in the documentary—the part where I had to do what I had to do. I brought Dan [Lohaus, the director of When I Came Home] to the hood. I brought him to the drug houses and the places where the stick-up kids was, but they thought I was crazy, so they didn’t mess with me. They wanted me to be a problem—I’ll be a fucking problem. You want to put me on the street, I ain’t taking it like that.
So at what point did you realize you needed to start engaging in this war back home?
When I found out how the media works. When Paul Rieckhoff sat me down and told me how the media works.
Were you leery of the media?
Hell, yeah. I thought the media was full of shit.
Were you talking to any reporters in Iraq?
CNN was following us everywhere. The colonel was trying to get rid of them. People were telling them to get away.
Did you write letters home?
No. I wrote little poems that I sent home. The stuff they have over there now, we didn’t have any of that. We didn’t have Internet—we barely had phones. We didn’t have anything. We were the reason why they have that shit over there now.
When did you know you needed to start speaking out?
All that speaking out was from Paul, because Paul was a real soldier, and he does it with such ease. And I thought. “I could do that.” He said I had a passion about this. He said just say what’s in your heart and say what you feel, because once you do something with passion, nothing will go wrong. Those insurgents in Iraq have passion; they have passion to blow themselves up—you going to die for that? I’ll die just to save another soldier’s life so they don’t end up like how I ended up. Because that’s how Vietnam vets ended up: fucked up and drunk, getting all into drugs, ending up on the street for seven years. Not me.
What’s the main problem causing homelessness among troops?
Lack of resources. That’s it. That’s the basic point. I went to a press conference at the Salvation Army vets homeless shelter in Queens on December 21 because Black Veterans for Social Justice’s Ricky Singh called me and told me Mayor Bloomberg is going to give a press conference about this homeless-vets situation because they seen the film, Mayor Bloomberg seen the film, all these people seen the film. But they were keeping it on the hush-hush. So I get to the homeless shelter, and the guys were Vietnam vets, and I’m looking at them, like, “Wow.” And they were going to make an announcement that they were going to give 100 vets permanent residences by the next 100 days.
No, they said they were going to raise that up because they said they have 700 homeless vets in the city now. So they put all the homeless Vietnam vets in the front, and they were going to give three homeless vets residences that day. It was part of whatever plan Mayor Bloomberg is trying to do. We have a whole bunch of camera crews behind us—New York 1—and I’m thinking this is a vets event, ask questions about the vets because that is what I came here to hear. This one lady asks about the pollution in Staten Island. I’m, like, “What the fuck?” Then they start talking about [former New York State comptroller, Alan] Hevesi, then some guy starts asking about some book some guy just wrote, and he’s sitting there answering these questions. He’s not even saying, “No, this is about the vets.” He’s answering these questions. So another vet from Vietnam Veterans of America came in. He says, “Excuse me, mayor.” He had a loud tone of voice, so the mayor had to listen to him, and he started telling the truth. He was, like, “The V.A. don’t offer this, and every time we have a thing for vets, the city doesn’t like to fund vets-only programs.” Bloomberg was just looking stupid, and the V.A. Secretary [Jim Nicholson] he was there looking stupid, because the guy said some real shit.
So 2008 rolls around, who do you vote for to fix this situation?
Because his name is the only name I’m hearing who is trying to do something. He’s really, really trying to do something with it, but they are picking away at his ideas. With a little understanding and talking to, he’d be great. There’s other politicians that don’t agree with it.
How do you feel about that kind of disconnect? What causes it?
Greed. People forget about their history. They’re scared to make a change.
What’s your message when you speak to groups?
My message is getting people to think about the soldier. Because there’s a soldier in everybody’s life. You may know a friend of a friend, who has a brother. And that soldier is fighting for your future. If you don’t want to see Armageddon real soon or World War III, where you see people in America carrying AK’s freely, people in America sticking people up freely, where our money ain’t shit. Imagine all the Bentleys didn’t mean shit. We’re preventing that—so why put us out on the street?
Are you enlisting anyone else in this war?
I’m reaching out to superstars, rappers. I’m trying to get people to rap about it, to sing about it, because I dabble a little bit in the music industry. I produce a little bit—I make beats. Dan Lohaus talked to Questlove; I talked to Chuck D, Busta Rhymes, Eminem. Once they start singing about it, the politicians’ kids hear the music, they’re going to ask questions. It’s all a mindfuck. All you have to do is structure how people see society.
What are they saying?
They’re feeling it. Everyone I talked to. It’s just what they do about it. Are they going to mention it in their next interview? Are they going to do something? I ain’t hearing nothing yet. I don’t hear anything about it on the radio. If you make music about it, you can make a hit just by talking about a soldier’s life. Come on. There’s people talking about getting shot nine times for some unnecessary shit. But imagine somebody getting their arms blown off for something legit. Somebody losing their face, or somebody getting shot 14 times and living.
What will end your war back home?
I’m going to keep doing this until I talk to someone who’s going to really do something. Until I’m sitting down at a table in the White House or a conference room in D.C,. and the people that can make things happen are listening to me. But I don’t think it will ever happen in my time. I already see how it is. Hillary sat down with me—it boosted my head up—but I think if Paul Riekhoff weren’t in the room we never would have spoken. Look how long it’s been happening. It’s already repeating itself.