SFR: You enlisted in the Marines in 1981; why?
RE: I was married. I was born and raised in a religious cult. It was supposedly Christian, but by the time I was a teenager it had turned into this one man, worldwide thing being the infallible leader.
What was the cult?
It was [a sect of Plymouth Brethren]. So, long story short, I had a***image1*** furniture refinishing business and I got a contract and the guy that gave me the contractâ€¦I wanted to pay him back because that was the system I was raised in, that if someone did something for you, you paid them back. So I offered that if he and his wife wanted to go anywhere for dinner that I would pay for it, and he said, "Ron just keep doing the same good job you're doing." So the thing that happened to me was, 'How could he be good if he wasn't in this cult?' So I left. [The cult] withdrew from me, excommunicated from me; they kept my family, my wife and two children under the age of 6, plus one child in her belly. It was the first part of my being disenfranchised - and I began living like a transient in my own life. I got into drugs and alcohol very strongly. I let my business go and was at loose ends and didn't know what to do. I had no structure. So I joined the Marine Corps for the structure. I went AWOL for about nine months because I didn't want to kill anybody and then I decided, "If I want to do anything with the rest of my life I need to step up to the plate.' So I went back in and that's why it's a long story why I joined the Marines.
That's a pretty big story. So joining the Marines was life changing?
I was always physical and athletic, one of the things we weren't allowed to do [in the cult] was join teams. You couldn't go to theater, to movies, to sporting events. We went to church five nights a week, Saturday morning and all day Sunday. I did manage to play a lot of basketball and when I got in the Marine Corps I really reveled in that, testing my physical and mental abilities. I was 27 years old.
You were honorably discharged in 1985. What was your plan then?
My plan at that point was to take some music I'd written and go to LA and sell my songs, buy a Mercedes and live the high life. I had $1,000 and didn't know anything about LA, about Hollywood, so I thought it was sensible to spend $600 for a motel room on Sunset Strip. At the end of that week, I was on the streets. I was homeless for about four or five months. I started my furniture refinishing business up there in California - and I made enough money to fly back to New York.
You'd been in the service; did you think there were resources for you as a veteran?
I went to the welfare office because they told us when you get out, "This is your right, you deserve this.' I walked in there and looked around at the people in there and said, 'I don't belong here.' These people have nothing, they have worse than nothing, they have no hope. I felt like I could get out of this thing and I did.
When did you start interacting with other veterans?
In August of 2007, it was suggested I attend a conference of veteran-owned businessmen. I had no idea there was even something like that. When I got out of the service, I had done my time and that was it; I didn't want anything more from the government. I went to this conference in Albuquerque, another life-changing experience; I was home.
And how did you get involved with the issue of homeless veterans?
I was asked to perform a song for the Veterans Outreach Offices for an awards ceremony and [New Mexico Department of Veterans Secretary John Garcia] asked me a month later if I would write a song about the plight of homeless veterans. Other states look to [Garcia] as an icon because of what he's done for veterans. By that time, the issue of homeless veterans was already part of my consciousness because all the veterans were talking about it. So I did, I wrote the song. One morning I woke at about 4:30 in the morning and the song was there. I called John Kurzweg, the producer of the band Creed, and he referred me to Larry Mitchell, who just won a Grammy this year, and we sat down and ironed out the song and did the scratch track - Kathy Sabo did backup vocals.
You're going to be performing on the Montel Williams Show?
I'm going to be appearing on it and will probably be performing something. It's very exciting.
What have you learned about the homeless plight you didn't know before?
That it's harder now than it was in the '60s and the '70s. People weren't as frenetic as they are today. People are more afraid today than they appeared to be back in the '60s and '70s. My experience in 1985 when I was homeless was people didn't see a homeless Marine, they saw a homeless bum. When you are out long enough, you reek of homelessness, you can't help it. I think it frightens people today more than then because more people are living on the edge of being homeless.
This week marks the five-year anniversary of the Iraq war. What does that mean for veterans?
I think veterans are more accepted than they ever were, but still not getting the recognition. The thing I say when I give speeches is, whether we agree with the war or disagree with the war, and a lot of veterans disagree, the fact of the matter is: Without veterans, this country would not exist.