After suffering from child abuse at the hands of his father, then domestic violence from his wife, Tony Lopez found excuses to turn to drugs. But it took his mother’s disdain to help turn him in the other direction and toward Soldier On.
Strung out and needing shelter, Tony recalls going to his mom’s Connecticut home on a Friday night in 1999, seeking a place to crash for the night.
“I asked if it was OK if I stayed with her, and she shot me a dirty look like I was a piece of crap,” Tony recalls of his time battling addiction to crystal meth, cocaine and alcohol. “She walked away and I spent the night on the steps. I made up my mind then and there that she was never going to see me that way again.”
A native of South Norwalk, Conn., and a Navy veteran who served six years as a jet mechanic on the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Coral Sea in the Pacific, Tony fought through his personal demons and addictions, and has remained drug and alcohol free since 1999. A resident of Soldier On since 1999, and a staff member since 2001, Tony has served Soldier On in many capacities from General Manager to coordinator of transportation, purchasing and facility maintenance. He is currently a full-time case manager for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program in New York State, helping veterans to avoid the homelessness that he suffered following his military service.
Tony left Connecticut shortly after high school to join the Navy in California, where he says he had no addiction issues (“just recreational stuff”) despite a long family history of substance abuse. His brother died from AIDS after sharing drug needles. He said his problems arose during a six-year marriage to an abusive woman with whom he fathered two children. He said he met her during his Navy service, and that when he sent home checks to pay for apartment rental, she was instead using the money to fund improvements to her mother’s house nearby. When he returned from service, he found himself living in a garage. He said this poisoned relationship continued even after he left the service and he found work as a jet engine mechanic in California.
“I made a good living, but they took everything,” Tony said of his wife and mother-in-law. “I walked out with just a sea bag. If I hadn’t left, I might have ended up in prison. I turned to drugs to keep from turning on her and her mother. It was like I was married to both of them.”
As he continued his drug use, Tony spent several years going back and forth between Connecticut and California, even traveling to England and China as an audio electronics technician.
“Drugs didn’t take me down,” Tony insists. “I was still using, but I always kept a job.”
In 1999, he was working in Bridgeport, Conn., and sleeping on the floor of his employer’s business. He was content “to just stay on the floor and get high,” Tony said. “That’s where my addiction became uncontrollable.”
Recognizing his situation as an addicted, homeless veteran, Tony checked himself into several Connecticut treatment clinics before a clinician at the Norwalk Hospital pointed him to Soldier On.
“I asked if I could come here for treatment,” Tony recalls. “I was desperate.” He admits his early days at Soldier On were a challenge, but he advanced through the programs and found his calling with the opportunity for employment that became available here. That opportunity, he said, “is the world to me. I’ve had a lot of jobs, but this is by far the best one I’ve ever had in my life.”
“Soldier On gave me back my dignity, my self-respect and a purpose – they gave me all of that,” Tony said. “Being here has given me the best life I have ever had, being self-sufficient and being able to take care of myself and help out my family. They gave me the opportunity to address my issues, and supported me in spite of my shortcomings.”
With addiction and homelessness now in his rear-view mirror, Tony rents a 3-bedroom home in the Berkshires and has reconnected with one of his sons.
And his mother.
“Now I’ve got the keys to her house,” Tony said proudly of the woman who had previously scorned her addicted son. “Sometimes I’ll go for a three-hour ride, give her a kiss and drive back home.”