The View from the Fairlane

An Interview with Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess

With his wellness mobile—a turquoise 1965 Ford Fairlane—and small band of helpers, Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess is dedicated to helping troubled and homeless veterans and their families. He knows the importance of connecting one-on-one, of answering people’s calls for help, and of finding, visiting, and listening with empathy. This segment of the population, he points out, can be hard to see and hear, but their stories are powerful and deserving of attention. He favors a person-to-person approach, but he also networks with larger aid-providers and organizations, and he helps people navigate bureaucracies.

As reported by Amy Paradysz in Journey, Eddie Burgess himself was helped greatly by Micmac tribal elders, who visited him in New Hampshire when he was a young adult wrestling with substance abuse. They gave him his name, Greyfox. By connecting with him in a meaningful, transformative encounter—by really seeing, valuing, and talking with him—they changed his life’s path. Since then, he embraced sobriety and has gone to college, worked with several social service organizations, and become a chaplain. He took up his present work as a way to honor his lost brother Alan, who died in 2004 while on a street patrol resource in Mosul, Iraq, and who had been a chaplain’s assistant in the barracks.

This November, I spoke with Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess about his trips in and around Maine and about his calling.

Mary:

Can you please tell me about your background and the work you are doing now?

Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess:

Yes, I’m living in Maine. My family’s origin is in New Hampshire. I have family in New Hampshire and Vermont. I’m a Gold Star brother [a family member of a person in the service who died in military conflict]. My brother died in Iraq, in Mosul, Iraq, in 2004. I have a nonprofit veteran’s wellness mobile. We cover the points of wellness—whether that’s physical health, emotional health, spiritual health, or social wellness.

Mary:

You help veterans who need assistance with housing, medical issues, application forms, life crises, or whatever they need help with?

Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess:

Yep. For example, families have called me if a veteran is thinking about committing suicide and needs help talking about that and getting counseling for their loved one. Sometimes I get called because someone can’t pay their power bill. Right now, I’m working with a family. One is a soldier and one is a

civilian, but they’re married and they’re homeless. They’re in a tent behind some hotels right now. I get calls all the time about different things.

I am working with a young lady right now, whose dad has died. Her father was a veteran, connected with the Vietnam War. We’re trying to get her set up with services for a funeral. The family and her mom are overwhelmed, obviously. First of all, you have to go through the process of grief, but then you have the bureaucracy of the Veteran’s Administration (VA) and all the paperwork. The daughter is reaching out to me. We’ve been contacting various branches of the state and federal government to make sure that the services—those that she or the family might be entitled to—are available to them.

Mary:

Tell me, how many people are in your organization and how do you fund it?

Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess:

We receive donations, and we are a family foundation of 509. [A 509(a)(3) is a public charity that supports a parent organization—a 501(c)(3) public charity.] There are just a few of us, a few families that get together. We average about 30,000 resource bags a year that we hand out to people at events and in low-income communities. Resource bags contain phone numbers for state and national crisis teams and national disaster hotlines, and other materials on suicide awareness, anti-bullying, the prevention of substance use, food distribution places, healthcare facilities, and information on tick-borne illnesses, common in Maine. Information can be helpful. We also go around and participate in Gold Star family events in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. We help as many people as we can, and we answer as many calls as we can.

Mary:

Do you work full-time at a regular job or is this your full-time job?

Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess:

This is my full-time job. However, it is not a paying job. I am disabled. It’s my calling, to fulfill my brother’s role. My brother was a chaplain’s assistant when he was in Iraq. I believe that what I’m doing is a way for me to give back and to help other families.

Mary:

Is there a story that stands out for you, in the area of veterans’ care?

Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess:

Yes. There was a young man, a fellow in his 40s, up in Augusta. He reached out to a vet who was hanging out at the Togus [VA Medical Center in Augusta]. The young fellow saw and was shocked that the vet was being mistreated and talked to in a real harsh way. The young man tried to mitigate that and to advocate for the soldier. The soldier was an older fellow. He was 77 years old. He was homeless. He was living under a bridge. The younger man thought that there was more that could be done and that people could be more considerate and helpful in their dealings with the vet.

It’s very unfortunate because this older gentleman has served our country. There’s that heartbreaking piece, but also he’s a senior citizen. He’s 77 years old. His wife had died, and I believe he did have some depression and some other things going on. We hear a lot about similar situations. In this case, the young man stood by the side of the soldier, advocated for him so well, and was able to get him some needed services. When we responded, we learned that the soldier is all set.

A strong peer connection with those in despair is the strongest tool that we can use to help. As people are struggling, a human connection is the best tool.

Mary:

This subject is so important. Do you have any reading you can recommend, for people who are struggling?

Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess:

The book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World (2020), by Vivek H. Murthy M.D., is an excellent new book. He was the 19th Surgeon General of the United States. He talks about the importance of working together, talking together, hanging out together.

Mary:

Can you explain more what your organization does and how it operates?

Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess:

We go out in the wellness mobile, from spring until winter. It’s a ’65 Ford Fairlane, an old antique car.

We drive it when the weather is decent. Then in the wintertime, we have other vehicles that we use. We go out, and we drive around. We talk to the homeless. They’re scattered all over the area. We talk to them. We also provide the resource bags to other organizations like the Veterans Council.

Mary:

Do you know how many homeless veterans there are in Maine? Or how many do you think there are?

Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess:

To get an accurate number, we who work in this area are going to have to go out the last day of the year, the winter solstice, and physically count people sleeping in encampments, doorways, and various agencies because not everyone is participating in the computerized version of the survey at shelters.

I think there are about 250, just in Maine. There are quite a few in Lewiston-Auburn because we have a vet center here so they know they can get services.

A lot of people are coming to the city from the country. There could be homeless folks in the country, but the problem is that there is such a ruralness to Maine that we’re having a trouble locating them. Some of them are staying with family, or they couch surf. Some live in the woods. There’s a lot of trouble in locating them. I know the workers are out looking for folks. I know that COVID has slowed some of them down.

Mary:

Are there veteran homeless shelters, places where they can go sleep at night?

Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess:

There are. There’s VETS, Inc., and Preble Street. We’ll meet with them day to day and do case management. There are several other programs available. VETS, Inc., is a shelter. Some of them will also participate in the community shelters run by civilians. Some of them have lost hope in the VA system. They just go wherever they can fit or blend in. Some just want to stay in a tent. If the Salvation Army or other group is out handing out meals, they take the free offerings from them, but they’re quite happy in the tent.

Mary:

How do homeless veterans live through a Maine winter outside?

Chaplain Eddie Greyfox Burgess:

Fortunately, the homeless stand down. They can come in and get services from the VA, medical checks, and eyeglasses. They get a shave. They get some new boots or new clothes. Some will go into an agency maybe a couple of times through the year and get some free things.

Sadly, as I’ve talked to some veterans, I learn from some that they’ve been bivouacking it in the woods for 10 years or more. Some of them won’t give it up. They’ll continue to do it year after year. I see them at the Point-In-Time survey, or I go out and hand out resource bags, or I go out with shampoo, soap, razors, and things like that. I see the same people. They’ve been in these homemade encampments like they made in the service. Some are new to living this way. Some have been doing it for years and years.

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