Gregory Peck's son is on a mission to help his fellow veterans
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. JOHN, Mo. — Never leave a comrade stranded “outside the wire.”
That code was instilled in Stephen Peck and his Marine platoon more than 40 years ago in the Vietnam War, when razor wire marked the line between enemy territory and the relative safety of their jungle outpost.
Peck, son of actor Gregory Peck, is carrying on that mission today as the national president of U.S. VETS, a nonprofit that serves 3,400 veterans nationwide who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, unemployment and other problems.
Peck, 66, of Los Angeles, visited St. Louis last week to tour the group’s new housing unit in St. John.
“We’re helping guys who survived wars but did not come home unscathed,” Peck said. “Studies show that about 30 percent of vets come home having suffered from some kind of war trauma or brain injury that hinders the ability to reintegrate.
“Places like this give vets the time, space and distance to deal with those psychological issues.”
U.S. VETS purchased the low-slung collection of two-bedroom brick apartment buildings near the intersection of Interstate 170 and Natural Bridge Road about a year ago for $575,000. The organization has spent $180,000 to refurbish them. The local organization is funded by private donations.
Today, about 20 veterans, men and women, and a dozen or so of their dependents live there. Most of them pay what the staff calls “a modicum of rent.”
Jeremy Golden, 24, an Iraq war veteran, moved to the complex in January.
Golden, of Paragould, Ark., joined the Army in 2008. On his second tour in Iraq, several of his friends were killed when an Iraqi soldier whom they were training turned his weapon on them.
Golden said last week that “it was all I could do not to shoot” other Iraqis he suspected were complicit in the murders.
Golden was discharged in 2011 with disabling panic attacks and nightmares, which continued to plague him after he returned home.
A friend connected him with U.S. VETS in St. Louis. The group helped him get his health care and educational benefits in order.
Golden said he plans to enroll in the fall at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and study political science.
“This place has helped me get my footing,” he said.
Bill Wallace, 53, of Creve Coeur, is director of the U.S. VETS branch here and an Army veteran who served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia in the early 1990s.
Wallace said about 500 to 700 vets are living on the streets in this region.
“This facility is just the start,” he said. “We’re planning to open a second facility in the city of St. Louis, probably in the Carondelet neighborhood.”
Wallace said his group works with the local Veterans Administration and other agencies to offer “wrap around” services for veterans that include employment counseling. The group’s website is http://www.usvetsinc.org/stlouis/.
Peck noted that the unemployment rate among young veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was higher than the national average.
“Many young soldiers joined to get out of situations that were bad to begin with,” he said. “There was no opportunity in their lives; many are from the inner city.
“And they are coming back with the same difficulties. They learned to drive a tank, but that won’t help in the civilian world.”
As a scion of Hollywood royalty, Peck’s armed forces odyssey followed a different trajectory.
He got a temporary deferment from military service as a college student. But after graduating, he was drafted into the Marine Corps.
Peck said his father, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, had “mixed feelings” about whether his son should report for duty.
“But he was an honorable, patriotic guy. There was no, ‘Son, I’ll help you get out.’”
Stephen Peck’s mother, however, dreaded the prospect and urged her son to move in with relatives in Sweden.
“But I didn’t want to start off my life by running away,” Peck said.
Peck was sent to Vietnam in 1969 with the 1st Marine Division.
He spent most of his one-year tour as a forward observer with an artillery unit based at a remote outpost about 25 miles west of Da Nang.
“Our job, in theory, was to prevent the Viet Cong from coming out of the mountains and going into Da Nang. As a platoon of 40 guys, we were a pretty big target for rockets and booby traps and getting pinged (shot) at,” Peck said.
Several men in his platoon were killed in action.
Peck returned home in 1970 and became a documentary filmmaker.
In 1990, Peck made a film about homeless Vietnam War veterans in Southern California, a movie that changed his life. The film led him into the field to which he has devoted himself for the past 20 years.
“There are still guys out there who are exposed, and no one is taking care of them,” he said. “And we don’t leave anyone outside the wire.”