Life reclaimed: Vietnam-era vet reaches goals after living on streets

Note: This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2012 edition of Reach, which publishes later this week. Download a PDF version of this article (0.9 mb).


Patrick Garcia is seen in front of a full-scale mural he painted on the Veterans of Foreign Wars building on 7th Street in Rockford. Garcia calls the mural his “comeback art.”

Patrick Garcia issues orders into a walkie talkie. A worker he supervises at the Millennium Center in Rockford applied the wrong kind of spackle to repair a hole in the wall, and Garcia doesn’t have time to take care of the situation before lunch. It’s a relatively small problem for Garcia, 58, but one he takes pride in remedying. He’s been building manager at the facility since July 2011. He considers it an amazing opportunity. And it really is, especially when you consider that just a few years ago, Garcia was homeless.

A traditional upbringing
Garcia spent the better part of his life behind bars. He endured two failed marriages. He missed out on relationships with two children. He lived on the streets. He blames all of it on drug and alcohol abuse.

But for more than five years – since 2006 – he’s been putting his life back together.
Patrick Eugene Garcia was born in 1954, in Plant City, Fla., the eldest of four children. He grew up in a traditional Catholic home – no swearing, no drinking and plenty of hard work.

Garcia describes his childhood as “exactly what you’d expect from that era.” His father was strict, but not harsh, and his mother was a nurturing homemaker. He tapped into his artistic side by the time he was 6, sneaking into his father’s study to watch him paint and draw. The discovery would spark a lifelong interest in the arts.

Garcia finds no fault in his upbringing, and doesn’t connect any dots that led to the turmoil he would encounter later in life. If you’re looking for where things began to go wrong, you could point to July of 1971, when he enlisted in the United States Army at the age of 17.

Because of his budding artistic skills, the Army trained Garcia as a medical illustrator. He remained stateside during the war in Vietnam, but developed survivor’s guilt after seeing his peers return to the U.S. with debilitating injuries. He was 18 when he began abusing substances.
“I was drinking a lot,” Garcia said. “Beer was a dollar a pitcher. It was just what you did. It’s what we all did.

“I started doing other things, too: Pot. LSD. Mescaline. Speed.”

It was the beginning of more than three decades of substance abuse. After the Army, Garcia’s abuse devolved from experimentation to addiction. It began with habitual glue sniffing, but his addiction would lead to other drugs, as well.

In trying to pay for his habit, Garcia was arrested several times for burglary and other financially motivated crimes. The abuse also cost him two marriages and relationships with his children.

“Crack cocaine was my drug,” Garcia said. “Most of my adult life – at least three quarters of it – I’ve been locked up. All of it was related to drugs or alcohol.

“None of my family wanted me around. My father passed away in ’93. I was in prison at the time.”

Road to recovery
In 2006, during his fifth stint behind bars, Garcia found himself eligible to leave prison on parole – provided he could find a residence. His case worker suggested the Rockford Rescue Mission, which would accept parolees and provide a permanent address. Without the program, Garcia would have remained behind bars until his sentence ended in January 2012.

The Mission put Garcia in a one-year recovery program and gave him an opportunity to practice his painting, drawing and other artwork – something he saw as the key to his recovery. It wasn’t long before he was commissioned to paint a full-scale mural on the Veterans of Foreign Wars building on 7th Street in Rockford.

“I found out later that my dad was very proud of my artwork, which meant a lot to me,” said Garcia. “That mural was kind of my comeback art.”

Garcia’s talent was noticed, and he was recommended to Brad Gilbaugh after completing the Mission’s program. Gilbaugh manages Rosecrance’s Homeless Veterans Program, which provides transitional housing to veterans while they search for full-time housing and employment. Garcia spent about a year and a half in Rosecrance supportive housing.
“The guy has had some tough breaks in life – all related to drugs and alcohol – but when I first met him, you could tell he had the potential to succeed,” Gilbaugh said.

Gilbaugh put Garcia in contact with Nancy Vaccaro, who gave Garcia a job at the Millennium Center drawing portraits on Friday nights. Garcia parlayed the opportunity into his current full-time job.

“He made his mind up he was going to turn his life around, and he did it,” Gilbaugh said.

Today, Patrick Garcia lives a life free of substance abuse. He’s reconciled with his
family – he plans to visit his mom, whom he hasn’t seen since 2003, in Denver later this year. He works during the week at the Millennium Center and practices his art during his off time. Local newspapers occasionally feature his artwork.

Garcia recently earned a promotion, maintaining all properties affiliated with the owners of the Millennium Center. Because of his position, he was able to offer a job to another person actively involved in Rosecrance’s Homeless Veterans Program.

“We’re very proud of Patrick,” said Susan Black, his case worker during his time in the Homeless Veterans Program, “and I know he’s very proud of himself.”

Garcia shares the credit.

“I often thank God, and the people who work in the facilities, for what they’ve done for me,” Garcia said. “I believe that being in the Homeless Veterans Program taught me to believe in myself again. I’ve had a chance to start over.”


About Rosecrance’s Homeless Veterans Program

The Homeless Veterans Program is a maximum two-year program requiring complete abstinence from substance abuse. Attendance at Veterans Affairs meetings is mandatory, and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-Step programs is encouraged.

Program participants live in a Rosecrance-run apartment for the duration of their stay. All money paid into rent is redirected into a savings account, which is then given to the veteran at the end of program to use for living expenses.

The goal of the program is to provide transitional housing while the veteran seeks full-time employment and housing.

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