A System Gone Mad

Two agencies were supposed to be taking care of Donald Ellison. Instead, they were missing in action--and the mentally ill Vietnam veteran was left to die on the street.

"My mom got her son back from Vietnam," says Mary Howard, "but she didn't get the same son. We got him back in his darkest hour--and we got what we got."

Mary Howard, 12 years Donald's junior, was a young girl at the time. But she recalls his return vividly and chillingly:

"He'd just set in the La-Z-Boy and stare, watch the windows with a shotgun on his lap. He wouldn't talk about the war, and I'd be wondering what was going on in his mind. I saw so much confusion in his eyes. I don't think I ever saw him cry. It was hell."

Donald did discuss some of his war experiences with another sister.
"He was all locked up into what he went through in Vietnam," recalls Alice Jackson, two years younger than Donald. "He'd talk about not trusting anyone there because people wanted to get him. Even children were dangerous because they could be all boobied up. He said he had to watch his back and his front at the same time."

Donald often refused to take his pills, preferring alcohol and illegal drugs. He couldn't hold a job. And he started to have run-ins with the law.

Months after Donald returned to Gila Bend, police arrested him on a disorderly conduct charge, his first of dozens of similar arrests over the next quarter-century.

"He'd walk around town in a daze most of the time," recalls Joe Diaz. "He'd just stare or be in people's faces just like that. 'Nam must have been hell on that dude."

Into the Darkness
A discouraging pattern had developed by the early 1970s: Donald would get arrested for something and end up in a mental hospital.

There, he'd be heavily medicated, "stabilized," then discharged with orders that he take his pills and try to behave.

Donald often tried to turn his life around.
In 1976, he lived alone in a Phoenix apartment and found work as a gardener at Brophy College Prep. He was well-liked, and his employers encouraged him to seek his GED.

He earned it, then lost his job because of chronic tardiness.
He took to pacing the streets for hours, often stopping to drink at seedy bars. Donald had few friends, mostly because he was wildly unpredictable. One minute, he'd confront someone over a perceived slight; the next, he'd laugh and walk away.

In the late '70s, Donald moved to Southern California, where most of his siblings had migrated. The change of scenery did no good.

"He claims that nothing goes right for him," a doctor there noted in July 1977, "that he was fired from his job. He has been drinking quite a bit and so he sought help in the hospital. It is doubtful if this patient will ever be able to hold onto a job."

Donald moved to L.A.'s Skid Row. In 1979, his VA disability checks--his sole source of income--stopped coming to his post office box. Donald phoned the Veterans' Administration and was told to put his complaint in writing.

In a handwritten letter dated June 4, 1979, Donald stated:
"I recall my first two months in Los Angeles, which I received the VA check. For the next five months I lived in the streets withstanding the cold and rain of the winter. There were times I sought work through the employment office. Jobs were slow to come by . . ."

Donald won his appeal. The government sent him a letter of apology, and a check for the erroneously terminated payments.

But he could not halt the encroaching darkness.
In 1980, Los Angeles police arrested Donald after he brandished a small knife at a bus stop. A judge committed him to a state mental hospital.

Two years later, with Donald's release imminent, a psychiatrist issued a warning: "The veteran continued to be impaired by his experiences in Vietnam. . . . He requires continued comprehensive care and treatment. His behavior at this time would be unacceptable in home and community."

But authorities then told Donald he was free to go where he wished.
Bright moments were rare. One came in 1984, when his sister Mary asked him to escort her at her wedding.

"Our dad died [in 1981] and Donald was my next in line," Mary recalls. "Someone before the service asked him if he was nervous. He says, 'Hell no, I been fighting with the Vietnamese. I can handle this.' No smile, no nothing."

When his mother died in January 1987, Donald was enveloped by a new wave of depression. More run-ins with police ensued, and an attorney representing Donald suggested that the Arizona Veterans Service Commission be appointed as his conservator.

The Arizona Legislature created AVSC in part to "act as guardian of an incapacitated veteran . . . or as conservator of the estate of a protected veteran." AVSC may charge a "conservator's fee" of up to 5 percent of a ward's income--about $1,000 a year in Donald's case. That doesn't include "legal accounting" fees, which came to about another $500 per year.

For fiscal 1994, the agency reported cash disbursements on behalf of its wards of $11.2 million.

In 1992, AVSC also became Donald's legal guardian. Arizona laws spell out the agency's duties: to do what's best for its wards, personally and financially.

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