Let me introduce myself. My name is Keith Laseter. I am the Executive Director and co-founder of Bridging the Gap, and I am a veteran of the United States Army.

I am a native of South Georgia and was raised by religious parents who gave me a good Baptist foundation — or so they thought. Realistically speaking, I did not believe that Someone had died for my sins, especially Someone who did not know me. That concept was impossible for me to believe. Furthermore, how can Someone who loves you as much as the preacher says God does, condemn you to the fires of Hell? As a child, I struggled to believe in Someone and something I could not see, touch, or hear. In fact, I have struggled with that concept my entire life. When I (according to certain people) sinned, I responded: “Screw it; I am going to Hell anyway”.

I struggled through school and felt as though I was different from the other kids because I was already condemned to Hell. I was conflicted with thoughts of what would it be like to be a thief, bank robber, or a criminal. I fantasized that I could live a life of crime, doing things “ordinary people” would not even consider doing.

I was a problem child for every teacher I had in school. I did not know how to express or channel the feelings I had deep inside. I feared that no one would understand or that they would judge me in a negative way. I was sent to a countless number of psychiatrists, sociologists, preachers, and mental health professionals, some of whom tried to help me. I was not honest with them, however — I was terrified they would have me committed to a mental hospital. I believed that I was academically slow and limited in intellectual and emotional development.

After graduation I was still battling my criminal thoughts which had plagued me since my youth. The military served as an escape from what was going on in my mind. While in the military I acquired the legal ability to self-medicate in order to stop the crazy thoughts in my head.
After the military, I came back home and felt more isolated than before I served in the military — I had no explanation for the loneliness. I believed the people in my own country — the citizens I had defended — could not understand what soldiers experienced.

I felt like no one cared.

To escape these feelings I started using drugs and drawing deeper and deeper into isolation and feelings of hopelessness. After I was released from the military I bounced from job to job. I kept trying to run from myself. I could not settle down. I was an addict.

My first job after the military was with a sheriff’s department in North Carolina. I knew my job was in jeopardy when I was called into the shift commander’s office and told to meet quota or I would be terminated. I knew quota was just the tip of the problem. I was in a state of complete hopelessness and despair and believed life would never improve. I was tired of fighting.

That evening, I drove to a desolate place under a bridge. I sat in the patrol car crying, pulled out my 9MM, stuck it in my mouth and pulled the trigger. The pistol clicked. Frustrated, I pointed it at the passenger door and pulled the trigger again. This time, the pistol discharged and blew out the side window of the patrol car. I was fired from the Sheriff’s Department that night.
I started my own business. I traveled around the world building athletic fields, sports complexes and golf courses. But it didn’t fix my personal problems; in fact, my drug use escalated.

I felt estranged — like something was missing, and I continued to use drugs. The Veterans Administration Hospitals were my biggest drug suppliers. They gave me unlimited types of pain medications. Eventually the drugs stopped working. I needed more and started using stronger drugs to quiet my mind. I was arrested for possession and pled guilty under the first offenders act. Nineteen months later I was picked up again and charged with drug trafficking. My entire business was seized. I pled not guilty because I was not trafficking, I was just using heavily. I did not sell my drugs because I needed them all.

When a jury of my peers found me not guilty of trafficking, I walked out of the courtroom only to be arrested and transferred to the county jail with no bond. I pled guilty to possession. I was sentenced to five years and served 18 months in jail.

When I was released from jail, the state claimed that I had no clothes or ID because they were lost. They gave me a pair of 1985 parachute pants, a white t-shirt, and a pair of flip flops. (Talk about a target on your back.) They also gave me a check for $25. I had burned my bridges during my active addiction, returned to the scene of the crime, and nuked them…just to make sure.

I walked to a Baptist Church, because I knew I could not get a check cashed without ID. I was banking on Christian empathy.

A prayer meeting was being held that night, so I waited until it was over. Ironically, the preacher was talking about “helping thy neighbor”. When the service was over, I introduced myself to the pastor and asked him if he could help me get the check cashed. I told him I had no identification and wanted a piece of Papa John’s pizza. He looked at me and said, “We are not a bank.”

I immediately reflected back on the mixed messages I received in my childhood church. “Wow!” I thought. “No wonder the community is confused and divided. They don’t know what to believe or what to do.”

I went to Wal-Mart that night to try to cash the check and get something to eat. Of course, they would not touch it with a 10-foot pole without proper identification. I walked to the bus station, which was an ordeal in itself – no ID, no money and questionable attire.

Finally, I arrived in Atlanta via the bus. It was 3:30 a.m. I slept in the terminal until a policeman awoke me and made me leave. I wandered the streets, wondering what to do and not knowing where to go. Everywhere I went I felt like I wasn’t wanted, wasn’t welcomed, or had a contagious disease. It was a desperate feeling.

I had acquired animalistic behaviors in jail and it was normal for me to want to survive — so I did; but no one ever told me that I would have to fight for my life on American soil.

I held on to that State check like it was a piece of gold. It was all I had. I found refuge under a bridge or on the sidewalk until a policeman would come by and chase me away. I scavenged for food in garbage cans. I was treated like the dirt people walked on. I was invisible.

One night I was lying on a bench in a Park and a couple of policemen came by and rolled me off the bench. They told me to leave the park because it was closing. Enough was enough. I went to the only place where I could cash a check without identification…the liquor store. I did not want any alcohol, and I didn’t want to use drugs anymore. I knew I was allergic to those substances because when I drank and used, I broke out in handcuffs, and felonies. All I really wanted was a cup of coffee.

The clerk in the package store told me he would cash the check, but I would have to buy something. I had no choice – desperation will make people do things that they normally would never do. If I had known what was about to happen, I would have run as fast as I could and as far as I could.

A bottle of alcohol was the cheapest thing in the liquor store. I purchased it so that I could cash the check issued by the State of Georgia. I walked out of the liquor store, and my addiction started screaming at me that it was crazy to throw the bottle away. The monkey on my back won that night. I drank the bottle of vodka.

Of course, then I had to urinate. I went back in the store and asked the clerk if I could use the bathroom, but said “no.” Desperate, I went behind the store and attempted to discreetly urinate behind the dumpster. A policeman on routine patrol pulled behind the building and saw me. I was arrested for indecent exposure and held in the Rice Street Jail for five months on a probation violation.

That indecent exposure charge turned into my third felony — I had violated a condition of my parole by drinking alcohol. At that hearing, the judge realized that I had an addiction problem, and decided to send me to an inpatient rehabilitation program. I attended drug rehab, and completed the program. My clean and sober date is 3-15-2008.

Two years later I was able to go to court to dispose of the last felony charge. I plead guilty. The judge sentenced me on the Georgia Mandatory “Three Strikes You’re Out” Law, and I found myself sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Miraculously she suspended the sentence.

I knew I was extremely fortunate and was also very grateful. I founded the organization, Bridging the Gap  to assist individuals struggling with the issues I encountered after serving my country in the military — homelessness, addiction to drugs and alcohol, and going to jail.

I hope my personal story illuminates the fact that we, as a community, cannot wait for the government to solve these issues, we must start solving them ourselves. Government should not be in the business of rescuing people in our own backyards…that’s our job.

We must help people turn their lives around, regain their dignity, and become productive members in our communities.

This is a national problem and one that we can tackle and end quickly — if we all come together as a nation, as churches, as employers, as mentors, and as a people. We can give others the opportunity to overcome hopelessness and loneliness and find success in a world where they feel there is no chance for survival.

With the number of troops returning from war zones steadily increasing, the Veterans Administration believes that homelessness among our veterans will substantially rise over the next few years.

Veteran homelessness is something that we should not tolerate as a nation. We must recognize and resolve this problem – not avoid it. We cannot turn our eyes away.