COLUMBIA — Nearly four decades ago, David Sallee spent five months leading search-and-destroy missions on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia. The lives of his fellow Marines were in his hands as he led them through deadly territory. He was good at it.
"When I walked point didn't nobody get hurt, didn't nobody step on a booby trap, didn't nobody get ambushed," Sallee said.
Although his time in Vietnam ended in 1969, Sallee is still walking point, still looking out for his comrades. The 57-year-old backhoe driver and Vietnam veteran, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, is trying to build Sallee Post-Service Sanctuary, a 5-acre trailer park outside Hallsville that would shelter veterans who are homeless or have disabilities in seven new three-bedroom mobile homes.
But there are obstacles. Sallee is in debt "to everybody and their dog." He can't afford the $5,000 investment it would take to bring the property up to county specifications. He's been wrangling with Boone County officials — the Planning and Zoning Commission, the planning and building director and county commissioners — for months. Although many believe his idea has merit, it seems a long way from coming to fruition.
But Sallee won't give up.
Trying to come home
Don't tell Sallee he's building a trailer park; he's building a "sanctuary." He believes his development would offer a place for troubled veterans to come to terms with their demons in the same secluded setting that he did.
Flanked by Simon, a 130-pound guard dog that he jokingly calls "not a Great Dane but an above-average Dane," Sallee stared into a green wall of Missouri countryside and described his combat duty.
Sallee touched down in Da Nang, Vietnam, and spent his first night in a bunker. His post was taking heavy mortar fire.
"You could hear the thump-thump of them firing out in the jungle," Sallee said. Ready to fight "man-to-man," he steadied his rifle on sandbags and waited for a clear target.
None would appear.
Threats were hard to identify in Vietnam, and Sallee would wrestle with the resulting loss of civilian life. He watched his 3-year-old daughter, Chas, play as he recalled girls her age in Vietnam who were burned beyond recognition, killed by the impact of tear gas shells or coaxed into becoming weapons — walking up to him with M-79 rounds intended to blow off his leg.
"I mean you're seeing people — civilians, all right — and they don't know what's going on. They're very simple, uncomplicated farmers," Sallee said.
By the time he returned stateside, combat had changed him.
"I tried to go back to my home, my family and everything, and I couldn't," Sallee said. "I was staying drunk, staying high, not wanting to talk to anybody. I was fighting with everybody, I mean everybody."
The attitudes and worldview he possessed as an 18-year-old "jolly green giant," wide-eyed and ready for war, were no more.
"I was hurting everybody, and everybody was trying to hurt me," Sallee said. He no longer trusted the Marines, he no longer trusted the government, he no longer trusted anyone — and he was angry.
He spent nine years with no permanent home, backpacking across America and doing drugs with his ex-wife — one of three former spouses.
"She left me. That's cool, it was the right thing in hindsight," Sallee said.
Sallee's rap sheet is long and includes convictions for adult abuse without stalking and unlawful use of a weapon. He ended up in prison: once for robbing a liquor store, another time for threatening his wife with a handgun in 2001. Aiming the pistol at her, "I could see the back of her head exploding," Sallee said. But he didn't shoot her. Instead, he shot at the ground. But he still landed in prison.
"It gets hazy after that," Sallee said. He doesn't remember every detail, every time he has been to prison or gone to a Veterans Administration hospital for treatment. But he remembers that he had become callous and uncaring.
"Do unto others before they do unto you, that was my new ‘golden rule,'" Sallee said.
What Sallee didn't realize until more recently was that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating wound that has no obvious physical symptoms and can't be detected by blood tests. It twists the mind, changes priorities, compromises rational thinking.
Yet there was one value that Sallee couldn't shake: his loyalty to fellow veterans.
Sallee drives his full-size Chevy truck like he's dodging artillery, letting the back end slip a little as he whisks around corners on a gravel road. The drive from his home to the site of his proposed trailer park is short, but Sallee speaks quickly enough that he is able to cover topics ranging from the ethics of religion to the best mowing attachment for a tractor.
He waves at every driver he passes. He knows everyone who lives along this sparsely populated stretch of Hecht Road, where Sallee-Post Service Sanctuary would be located. He pulled into a mostly empty lot and hopped out of his truck.
Looking at the gravel-covered rectangles that mark the places where he wants to place mobile homes, Sallee succinctly answered why he wants to build his sanctuary.
"Because I can."
Whether that's true remains to be seen. But Sallee's true motivation stems from his own experience. Sallee said he eventually came to terms with post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction by "self-medicating," away from "polite society." It's a method he thinks could work for other veterans who have withdrawn from society and are struggling in ways he once did.
Sallee Post-Service Sanctuary would be a place for marginalized, homeless or disabled veterans to "decompress" before reintegrating into the larger world.
Sallee explained many of his "contemporaries" find society intimidating. They distrust the VA and the government, a sentiment he understands. When he came home from Vietnam, he was angry, he felt the government had lied to him and had asked him to do things that were "questionable at best." It took years for him to fully accept the VA treatment that he credits with helping him to understand and cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now he hopes to help others do the same.
Sallee's sanctuary would differ in two ways from other temporary and transitional living options that the VA and local non-profits offer veterans. First, it would not be government funded or affiliated. Sallee thinks that would make it more attractive to veterans who distrust government or are unready to live in a more structured environment. Second, it would provide a safe and stable place to live for veterans who feel they can no longer relate to society. Sallee believes the secluded setting would be less intimidating and ultimately would foster an environment of trust that eventually would promote their acceptance of any VA treatment they might need.
But buying seven new three-bedroom mobile homes isn't cheap, and Sallee is broke. So he's trying to come up with a plan for how to finance the venture.
As it stands, Sallee said he would make the down payments on the trailers himself and then charge rent equal to about 50 percent of the government benefit checks that the veterans who live in his sanctuary receive. He would have the veterans deposit the entirety of their checks into a bank account he controls, take the rent out of that account, then make the remainder of the checks available to the veterans in "branch" accounts. Sallee said he's working on arrangements with Martinsburg Bank and Trust. He said that method, and the fact that he would be keeping an eye on the residents, would help prevent veterans living in his mobile homes from spending their money on alcohol or drugs.
Sallee said he's also open to having "pre-screened" citizens who aren't veterans living with them in the park. The goal is to have the trailers paid off in five years, which is the loan repayment period he has discussed with mobile home dealerships.
Asked whether he thought taking half the veterans' benefit checks would be fair, Sallee said yes.
"Man, I'm not taking advantage of nobody," he said, insisting that his motivation is to provide his "men" with a clean, safe place to live where they won't feel judged and can "chill out."
What happens after he has paid for the seven mobile homes? Sallee isn't sure. He might charge only the cost of utilities, or he might continue to charge full rent and use the money to build a similar trailer park outside Boone County. Either way, the mobile homes would be his.
Sallee gave the sanctuary idea a try during the summer by working with Michael Michalek, a 66-year-old homeless man and Marine veteran. Asked about his military past, in which he was a cook on a Naval ship, Michalek rolled up his sleeve and displayed the USMC etched into his thin left arm.
"Once a Marine, always a Marine," Michalek said.
Michalek's face is a landscape. Years of hard drinking and substance abuse have deepened the wrinkles on his forehead to the point that his brow appears permanently furled.
He estimated he had been homeless for 25 years after he lost one of his legs in what he said was a train accident while unloading a storage car. He wobbled in a lawn chair as he explained that he couldn't bring himself to stay in nursing homes or VA hospitals, choosing instead to take his chances on the street.
Attorney John Whiteside was the temporary court-appointed guardian ad litem for Michalek and was legally responsible for making his basic life decisions. Boone County Public Administrator Connie Hendren now holds responsibilities for Michalek. Whiteside said he's known Michalek for 20 years and, as a judge, sent him to jail on more than one occasion.
"I have seen improvement," Whiteside said in August about Michalek's progress while living with Sallee. "He's eating, he's monitored, he can get to the doctor when he needs to. It is very beneficial to him to have someone else paying attention to him."
But Michalek's stay with Sallee didn't last long. Seven days after his initial visit to Sallee's home, Michalek was gone, kicked out for what Sallee called "breaking the rules."
Some people would question Sallee's methods. Michalek received his "ration," one quart of beer every day and a 12-pack every two days. No hard alcohol. Sallee feared that if he didn't allow Michalek to drink at all, he would go back to living on the street. On the evening of Aug. 26, Sallee said Michalek wanted more beer. He wheeled himself to a neighbor's house to request a ride into town. Angered and frustrated by his actions, Sallee told Michalek to leave his property. Sallee was disappointed — but "the rules are the rules." He wants to work with a VA specialist to learn how to better deal with veterans like Michalek in the future.
"It's unfortunate," Sallee said.
Denise Heet, homeless veterans coordinator at Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital, said she and VA social workers try to establish relationships with homeless veterans who feel alienated.
In order to identify and help them, they employ outreach tactics that include networking with local soup kitchens and homeless shelters and using word-of-mouth. Every two weeks, trained volunteers walk the streets in search of homeless veterans. One by one, they work to bring them in. As an example, Heet cited efforts to build a trusting relationship with a "camp" of three homeless veterans and provide them with VA services that can include mental and primary health care, addiction treatment and housing programs. She wouldn't disclose their names or the location of their camp, fearing it would jeopardize the trust she was trying to build.
The problem of homelessness in the veteran population is broad. According to the VA Web site, about 154,000 veterans "are homeless on any given night." Locally, Heet keeps a database intended to track the number of homeless veterans in Columbia.
According to her latest estimate, there are 100 veterans in Columbia who have no permanent home, are staying in shelters or with friends and relatives, or are sleeping outside. She said adequate funding is available to provide services, and she urges veterans or anyone who knows a veteran in need to call the VA or to visit the VA Medical Center at 800 Hospital Drive.
But there are "veterans that aren't ready," Heet said. "They may be using substances or are angry."
So what does the VA think of Sallee's Post-Service Sanctuary as an alternative for homeless veterans who have withdrawn from society or are unready to accept VA services?
Local VA officials would not comment, citing internal policy that prohibits both discussing "commercial ventures" and the activities of any veteran that has received VA treatment or services. But Truman Memorial spokesman Stephen Gaither said Sallee would be allowed to post his trailer park as a housing option for veterans on a public bulletin board at the local VA facility.
One person who would comment ended his combat duty in Vietnam at Da Nang, the same place Sallee began his.
Carl Mumpower, a psychologist and Republican who recently lost his bid for representative of the 11th Congressional District of North Carolina, is recognized by the American Psychological Association as an expert in the areas of post-traumatic stress disorder and veterans issues. He's also a Vietnam veteran. As an 18-year-old, he held dual roles between 1971 and 1972 as an Air Force intelligence specialist and medic, and he, too, felt alienated when he returned home from Vietnam.
"I lost my sense of safety, I lost my youth, I lost my adolescence there," Mumpower said. And like Sallee, a sense of obligation to his fellow soldiers lingers. He and nine other psychologists tried to re-enlist for Operation Iraqi Freedom so they could help young soldiers cope with the emotional fallout of conflict. The Pentagon ultimately rejected their request.
Mumpower thought Sallee's plan sounded promising and might be especially helpful for homeless veterans who distrust government or are reluctant to go into the structured environments offered by the VA.
Mumpower said there are two schools of thought about giving troubled veterans who have withdrawn from society a means of rehabilitating away from populated areas. The first, which he prefers, is to press on and find your place in the world. The second is to "step back from life and seek more peaceful circumstances," like Sallee's proposed sanctuary.
"He will find some people responding well with that," Mumpower said. "But the problem is we can take our demons wherever we go. They're like a shadow, and they will follow you."
Rules are rules
"Do you want to see what an approved zoning request looks like?" Boone County Planning and Building Director Stan Shawver asked as he rolled out a Mylar sheet of development plans large enough to cover his entire desk. In white lettering and lines, details for a new Bobcat dealership were clearly printed and organized on a slightly opaque background. On top of that, he placed Sallee's plans: three sheets of paper with a basic black-and-white outline of his plans for Sallee Post-Service Sanctuary. Those plans were rejected in June, not only because of engineering deficiencies, but also because he didn't submit them on the required single sheet of Mylar.
The rejection of his rezoning request left Sallee frustrated. Shawver didn't think it was appropriate to comment on the nature of their interactions, but Sallee was more candid. He thinks he's been misled and treated unfairly.
"I can't be in the same room with him," Sallee said of Shawver.
Shawver said Sallee contacted him a full year before filing his rezoning request. He said county officials are concerned only about whether Sallee's plans meet county standards, not about the nature of Sallee's plans. It wasn't until 90 days before he officially submitted his request that Sallee revealed he would use the trailer park to house troubled veterans. Once submitted, Shawver found several problems. Most notable, the property lacked a waterline sufficient to extinguish fires, the sewage lagoon did not meet county code, and the original zoning classification on the application could allow someone to purchase and develop the property beyond its true capacity.
Sallee didn't dispute any of these findings, but he still believes there was a mistake in the assessment of his rezoning request.
Before his initial request was submitted, it was subject to a concept review meeting, where Shawver and people representing different county offices and utilities gathered to review it before it was officially submitted. One problem cited in the meeting was that CenturyTel had indicated it could provide only one phone line to the property. Shawver said that information came from a "local rep" at CenturyTel. But a signed letter sent to Sallee by Don Wilson, CenturyTel's supervisor of plant facilities, disputes that policy.
"CenturyTel will provide phone service to any home, business or structure that is in accordance with local, city and or county codes. The number of services to a property is not limited," Wilson wrote.
Annoyed, Sallee brought the matter to the Boone County Commission on July 1, when he appealed a June rejection of his plan by the Planning and Zoning Commission. The commission upheld Planning and Zoning's rejection. Ironically, though, according to official minutes of the meeting, it was Sallee's efforts to account for the property's deficiencies and bring it up to code that led to his wrangling with county officials.
The property was formerly Miller Trailer Park, which was established before 1973, the year planning and zoning regulations were put into place. County zoning regulations stipulate that the property would have been "grandfathered in" if Sallee had simply removed and replaced each mobile home, one by one. But the trailer park had been neglected, and Sallee chose to remove all the damaged mobile homes to make the property comply with county codes.
Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin praised Sallee for his efforts and said the fact that he's asking for RM, or moderate-density residential zoning, was a major sticking point. That, he said, would allow another owner to develop the property far beyond its capacity.
Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller asked Sallee if he would like to withdraw his application or have the commission deny it. He chose to withdraw it. "Mr. Sallee stated he does not think he needs another denial at this point," the minutes read.
But Sallee is a determined, and at times demanding, person.
"I'm real easy to get along with as long as you do things my way," he said. His independence sustained him for six years while he built his home and wrestled his demons. And on the morning of Aug. 18, his demanding streak had him sitting at a small conference table on the second floor of the Roger B. Wilson Boone County Government Center.
He wanted time.
Sallee was early for a special constituent meeting with the county commissioners that he had requested to ask for a conditional use permit that would allow him to go ahead and place mobile homes on his property. Rent proceeds would cover the $5,000 he needed to make mandatory improvements to the property.
The three Boone County commissioners arrived on time.
Sallee greeted them:
"Come on in, everybody, glad you're all here at one time. Ya'll know my name is Sallee; I'm the one that's been harassing ya'll for the last umpteen months, cajoling and pleading and everything else to establish Sallee's Post-Service Sanctuary out there, formerly a trailer park, and all I need is the approval of Planning and Zoning to bring it to life."
But the commissioners returned to the deficiencies listed in the initial report, and Sallee grew more frustrated.
"Ya'll answer me a question: Do ya'll have the authority to waive all this happy horses---?"
"No, we don't," Miller replied.
Sallee listened from his conference chair and tapped his cowboy boots as the commissioners listed the reasons they couldn't approve his request. At one point, Elkin momentarily left the conference room to retrieve additional paperwork.
"Need some coffee?" Presiding Commissioner Ken Pearson asked.
"No, not right now," Sallee mumbled.
"Hot tea?" Miller asked.
"A shot of cheap whiskey wouldn't even help me right now," Sallee said.
Pearson laughed. "Not in here."
When Elkin returned, though, he offered help. Elkin, a former Marine himself, commended Sallee for his idea and asked Sallee to let him "do the homework." He said he would provide Sallee a report detailing the steps he must take to earn a conditional use permit.
But Sallee remained annoyed. He walked out of the government center, the clack of his cowboy boots echoing off the glass windows of county offices.
Was he optimistic about the meeting's results?
"We'll see," Sallee said. "This ain't over."
Elkin and Sallee have talked every week since that encounter. Just last week, they were still working out ways to tweak Sallee's proposal to account for the deficiencies on his land. Sallee said he'll continue to pursue his dream. Elkin thinks they can reach agreement.
"As long as we keep talking, there's still hope," Elkin said.