It was Veterans Day, so Bill Griffin decided it was high time he returned to the place where he almost died and where he was certainly reborn.
On Thanksgiving morning, 19 years ago, Willmont "Bill" Griffin woke up on a bench in Boston Common. His mouth was dry, his head was pounding, and he was surrounded by a bunch of guys from the shelter at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans a couple of blocks away on Court Street.
Bill Griffin had helped with the evacuation of Saigon when the Vietnam War ended, but he had been on a downward spiral ever since he left the Marines in 1977. He lived on the streets and drank whatever he could stomach.
"They gave me a meal, a shower, some clothes," he said. "They said, 'You can stay here, but there's some stipulations. No drinkin' and no druggin'.' I said, sure, sure, whatever you say."
But he wasn't ready. They caught Bill Griffin holding a fishing pole out an alley window at the shelter. He was struggling under the weight of what he was trying to reel in: a half-gallon of vodka, which his drinking buddy Amos Marshall had put on the hook in the alley. Bill Griffin was asked to pack his meager belongings and leave.
"I ended up in some place in East Boston that turned out to be a crack house," he said.
Bill Griffin woke up one day and didn't recognize the guy staring back in the mirror. He was 6 feet and weighed 88 pounds. The eyes staring back weren't those of the young Marine who pulled Vietnamese people to freedom. They were empty.
"I started crying," Bill Griffin said. "I looked in the mirror and just started crying."
He called the veterans shelter because he knew he didn't have to explain anything to the guys who showed up in the van. They took him to detox, and when he got clean, they brought him back to the shelter and then he got sober.
"Everybody at the shelter looked at me like, 'Well, he's finally ready. Good to have you back, brother.' "
He got treated at the shelter for post-traumatic stress. He and four other vets founded an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. He met his wife Tina at a meeting. Booze was no longer an obsession. Making up for lost time was.
They made him a security guard at the shelter and one of his first duties was to escort his old buddy Amos Marshall out of the building. It hurt, but he knew Amos wasn't ready.
Bill Griffin went back to school, got an associate's degree, then a bachelor's. He got a job as a construction inspector. He worked on Deer Island, the Ted Williams Tunnel, the Big Dig. Eleven years ago, he re-enlisted in the Massachusetts National Guard.
He moved to New Jersey and did a tour in Kuwait with the Air National Guard. And in a couple of weeks, Bill Griffin will ship out for Iraq with his unit, the 108th Air Refueling Wing. He is 54 years old and he is going to war.
But before he goes off to war, Bill Griffin had to come back to Court Street.
"I'd recognize that bald head anywhere," he bellowed.
Amos Marshall, clean and sober these many years, looked up from the desk where he is now a substance abuse counselor at the Court Street veterans center and shook his head.
The two men embraced and laughed.
"Look at us," Amos Marshall said. "Who woulda believed it?"
Tina Griffin looked on and smiled.
Bill Griffin and Amos Marshall went over to the window where they last went fishing together.
"I thought it was a pretty good idea," Bill Griffin said.
"It was," Amos Marshall said, "until we got caught."
Bill Griffin is the poster child for the "Leave No One Behind" ethos at the shelter. They're throwing a gala dinner Thursday night at the Seaport Hotel.
But today, he had dinner with his brothers on Court Street. It was turkey with all the fixings, a lot better than the sandwiches he remembered from back in the day, when his mouth was dry, his head was pounding, and he decided he wanted to live, after all.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com
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