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Tent-dwelling Vet says he fought for that freedom: Our neighbor, Steven. W. Bogert

By WILLIAM PAINE

william.paine@southwesttimes.com

Commuting to work this past year, I frequently passed by a man with a grey beard walking along the road side of Route 99 between exit 94 and the Town of Pulaski.
Sometimes, I would see this fellow walking toward town. Other times he was walking toward the interstate from town, but he always carried a walking stick and wore what looked to be some type of wrap around both of his knees.
I often wondered, who was this guy and where was he walking? A week ago, I spied this same fellow at the Exxon station near the interstate off-ramp and decided to find out. He was rolling a cigarette and warmly greeting me as I approached. I then learned that the man who walks to and from town is Steven W. Bogert.
“I’m going down and get some more supplies,” he responded when I asked where he was headed. “I gotta fix my tent. I had a raccoon break into it. They do that you know … make holes and try to get stuff out of your tent. So now I’ve got to finish repairing my tent and a few other things.”
But Steven Bogert was not walking to town from his house in Draper. He currently lives outdoors in a tent in the woods near the interstate on-ramp. He claims walking several miles into town on a regular basis, “keeps me young.”
Even so, “Both my knees are shot. I’ve got to wear a brace on this one. Sometimes it goes out and that’s why I carry a stick … in case it does.”
Steven has been without a proper home for the last eight years, during which time he traveled all over the country.
“I decided to explore it a little bit,” he said, of his travels. “I got pictures from all over the country.”
He had just recently returned from another trip to Colorado, where he hoped to find work on a ranch, “but the wildfires kind of ruined everything up there, so I came back.”
It was quite chilly that morning and temperatures would be dropping more in the ensuing months, but Steven knew what to expect, as he first arrived in Pulaski in December 2019. Except for his month long trip out west, he has remained here camped in the woods for all that time.
I asked how he copes with the freezing temps of winter?
“Well, you either freeze to death or you deal with it. Other places are worse than this. In Oregon it snowed up to my waist. Cold is 10 or 15 below zero. That is cold. I’ve been there too in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.”
How did he end up here?
“Roll of the dice pal,” he answered. “I hitchhiked all over the country. In the days when we were really free in America, you could hitchhike around the country without being harassed but as we lose our freedoms every day, it gets harder and harder.”
“You’re about as free as they come,” I remarked.
“That’s right,” said Bogert. “That’s what I fought for.”
He joined the U.S. Navy as a seventeen-year-old in June of 1972.
“I served on a bunch of ships. I was on the U.S.S. Nimitz when it was brand new. I served on HS 15, that’s the Helicopter Anti-Submarine squadron. I fixed helicopters that chased submarines. We were chasing submarines off the East Coast.”
Bogert left the Navy in 1975 just as the Vietnam War came to a close.
“I got treated like garbage … all vets were,” said Bogert. “They were throwing rocks at us and spitting at us and calling us all kinds of names when we got back. That’s a part of history that people like to forget but the people that experienced it don’t forget.”
He seems proud of his military service, but is in an ongoing dispute with the Veterans Administration.
According to Bogert, at age 58 he began receiving a disability pension from the VA for a head injury he sustained while he was in the military. Two years ago, the checks stopped being deposited into his account.
“My VA pension got ripped off at Wells Fargo in Spokane Washington. I’m still waiting to get it back. They stole it out of my Wells Fargo direct deposit account and then they sent it somewhere else. Our government refuses to admit their system of direct deposit doesn’t work. It’s too easy to hack into.”
So how does he get along?
“Well, I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot of good people in this town that help me out when I need things,” he replied. “I got a buddy who gives me these big garbage bags to put my stuff in. I go to local people. If somebody gives me enough money for fuel. That’s enough. I don’t get greedy.”
Bogert does have a food stamp card and uses it to buy basic food stuffs. Other than that, he’s been known to do odd jobs for anyone in need of a hand.
The next time I saw Steven, he was walking back from town and so I pulled over to chat. He had just picked up his supplies and readily agreed to let me take him the rest of the way home, so that I could photograph his dwelling.
A barely visible dirt path off Route 99 leads to his campsite. A large blanket draped over the top of his dome shaped tent serves as insulation and two tarps strung directly above shield his residence from the rain and snow.
A lot of his possessions and a fair amount of trash were strewn over his campsite.
“I still got a mess down there but my buddy with the trash bags isn’t home so I’ve got to wait till he gets home,” he said. “I had all my stuff cached up but either the raccoons or somebody else got in there and tossed it all over the place.”
Raccoons are a fact of life when living out of doors, but Steven takes it in stride. He tells me to watch for snakes but says they don’t bother him. If a tree falls in his path he doesn’t clear it away. He even laid an egg out to feed his “pet” crow.
“You’ve got to understand nature,” he said. “Nature has its way.”
His supplies for the day included a loaf of bread, a can of chili, coffee, a Milky Way bar and a small container of Quick Flame gel chafing fuel.
“The fuel only costs a buck and it doesn’t really put out any carbon monoxide until it’s almost empty,” he said. “This will make a lot of coffee and stew so I always have a hot meal. Plus, it’s great for heat. You can seal the tent up and light this up and it gets 90 degrees in there if you want.”
Does he ever get depressed about his less than ideal circumstances?
“Well, it depends on whether it’s before or after I had my coffee,” he said with a chuckle. “I have a hot cup of coffee. I smoke a cigarette. If I want something to eat, I eat. I read books.”
He then pulled a picture of Jesus out of his wallet to show me.
“This is for every homeless man. He protects all homeless people. A lot of people don’t believe, but that’s their fault.”
These cans of fuel are likely his biggest expense, as Steven says he doesn’t drink alcohol at all. He has a cell phone with a solar powered charger but no cell service. He uses his phone to play solitaire chess, listen to music he has recorded and take photographs.
“I got maybe 5,000 pictures from all over the country,” he said.
He’s a big reader, too. “The Golden Years of Science Fiction” was the last book he finished.
“The short stories are all about us destroying ourselves, basically, and how we did it,” he recounted. “And sure enough, all those stories written then relate to what’s going on now.”
How does he feel about other homeless people?
“We try to stay low key, but some of them are into too many drugs. You know?” Steven said. They have to get into gangs and steal and all and I that don’t do that. So, I stay out here by myself.”
Though he stays alone, his presence has been noted. One day a Pulaski County Sheriff’s deputy came to visit.
“He was ex-Army and I showed him my I.D.,” Bogert recounted. “He said fine and he went down to get me some MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat). He was a pretty nice dude.”
Before joining the military, Bogert, who is now 65 years old, grew up in Bay Shore Long Island.
“I got hit by a motorcycle when I was 12 …killed me, then they woke me back up,” he recounted. “My head was all split. I wasn’t supposed to be in the military with that kind of accident but I did my duty anyway. I did it good, too.”
He moved to Texas where he “married the Wicked Witch of the West” before ultimately divorcing. He spent many years working on oil rigs, in refineries and on construction jobs throughout the Southwest United States.
At some point, he figured he just couldn’t afford to live under a fixed roof.
“Motels, even cheap ones, cost $600 or $700 a month and I really don’t have the money for that, so I live outside,” said Steven. “But the thing is, I’ve got my basic needs. I’ve got heat if I need it. It’s a nice day now. You have to remember the hard times.”
Bogert says if the VA ever returns his lost disability funds, he would buy a piece of land. For the moment though, he plans on staying in the woods on the outskirts of town.
“I’ve made good friends here,” he said. “They’re good people. They really are. The organizations aren’t worth a damn, but the people are great if you need something.”

 

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