Christopher Lee looks out on a cold, rainy day from the top step of the Dryhootch cafe on West National Avenue. Lee, who’s missing his three front teeth and has a bloodshot eye, holds a white cup in his right hand; the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, 5000 W. National Ave., sprawls behind him.
“I joined the military comin’ out of Bay View high School back in ‘89 and, uh, I was still in high school,” Christopher says. “I’m just hangin’ out — they’ve got weekend hours, which is good. Right now, I am currently homeless — been that way for a little while, technically. But, for the most part, everything is halfway good.”
He adds, “I’m lookin’ at warmer weather; I might be movin’ out of town next month.”
Lee was “born and raised” in Milwaukee. “I’m related to a big church family, church organization, called Church of God in Christ Ministries,” he says. “My grandmother and her kids and her former husband … they bought a house over there on 28th and Concordia and they pretty [much] raised everybody over there. I’m the oldest grandchild of the whole clan — there’s a number of first cousins but I’m pretty much the oldest.”
He’s the oldest of three; they all had different fathers. Lee, who was born when his mom was 16, had to make sure he set aside time for himself, when he was a kid. “A lot of responsibility, a lot of responsibility,” he says of his childhood. “Too much responsibility.”
Eventually, Lee joined the ROTC program, while still in school. His grandfather, step-grandfather and aunt’s husband were all in the military. He says the family history influenced his decision. “I got a better idea of it through my aunt — her husband, [who] was regular Army. I got a chance to go to a fort for the first time, out of state, [in] Alabama. I never got a chance to see him do anything, on a day-to-day but the uniforms looked great, it seemed like you could keep a job,” he says. “It looked like something I could do.”
And, while he wasn’t the best of the best, Lee, who did a five-month tour in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm, didn’t do poorly either. “There was nothing wrong with my service and doin’ my job, as far as what I could tell,” says Christopher.
Still, eventually, after his tour, he joined the National Guard and tried to become a drill sergeant in Milwaukee. He came back because he felt he had to, felt he should. But, now, Lee regrets the decision. “I should’ve just went on ahead and went away and stayed in (the service) and then came back (to visit) on leave. I got so entrapped because, my mom, you know … I [had] too much responsibility — I’m not pursuing my own dream.”
These days, Lee doesn’t get along with his family very well. “They think that I’m supposed to continue to give out of my pocket. I have a decent income (through his veteran’s benefits),” he says.
“A lot of times, you know, things are turbulent; I have ailments and woes of my own, not knowin’ my father … my biological father. I had a close-knit [group of] people — men and women — that helped raise me. But, at the same time, tryin’ to keep my own sanity … it’s challenging, right now.”
“Yeah, I’ve been doin’ the homeless thing,” he says.
He was enlisted for 10 years and discharged in 1999. But Lee was actually injured a couple years before — he had a spinal injury that paralyzed him for about four and a half weeks. He’s worried his body won’t make it through another Milwaukee winter.
“I’ve got a 23 year old son,” Christopher says. “He’s a good kid.”
Lee says he’s thankful for the specific classification of veteran that he is because of the assistance he’s received. But his son is smarter than he was and he’s grateful for the opportunities he has and will have access to. “I’m trying to stay healthy enough so, if he needs me at a certain point in time … the finances, it’s always a question but, you know, god finds a way for everybody to take care of the people they help bring into this world.”
He adds, “My next step is gonna be my best step, as far as my finances [are] concerned.”
But it’s not just the financial part he’s worried about. Christopher has had to deal with some issues of his own, perspective he hopes to impart on his son. “A lot of things have been misconstrued about my intention, about my vision for him,” says Lee. “But, me and her made him together.”
Lee, who’s driven tow trucks, worked at his uncle’s gas station and held a job for about a year at a gift-wrapping company, hasn’t been able to work since his injury, during the 90s. But he’s excited about the prospect of finding warmer weather somewhere — maybe in Alabama or Savannah, Georgia — and going into some kind of business. “I’m lookin’ forward to maybe buyin’ a house, bein’ a property owner, probably get into real estate a little bit,” Christopher says. “I still haven’t used my GI Bill, so, once I get settled, whatever part of this country I settle in, I might find a duplex and just do some small business stuff.”
“You know, I don’t know if I want to go to school … or just find a side-by-side duplex somewhere.”
He even mentions the possibility of opening up a booth to sell clothing and cell phones with a military buddy of his. But, no matter where he ends up, Lee isn’t worried about looking too far ahead.
“Thanksgiving is comin’ up,” he says. “I’m really just thankful; hopefully, I’ll have some place to sit down and eat, have a good meal.”
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