When Green Doors resident Lewis Stennis came home from his deployment in Iraq in 2009, he found himself homeless at 21. Despite the challenges he faced, including brain injuries sustained from combat, the now 24-year-old has fought his way to college. Click through to read one soldier’s inspiring story…
It was a normal day for Saadr City in 2009: The sun blazed in the sky as an armored fighting vehicle filled with American infantrymen barreled down the road on route patrol. Suddenly, there was an explosion – a car bomb detonated, shaking the vehicle so much that one soldier was knocked unconscious. “All I remember is this flash of bright light and then everything went black,” recalls Green Doors resident Lewis Stennis. “Two days later, I woke up in Germany.”
Three years later, the 24-year-old is still feeling the effects of that car bomb. The impact of the explosion left him with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). To this day, he has trouble remembering things. He doesn’t sleep much anymore, and when he does, it’s almost never at night – he just catches naps whenever he can. Already a slight guy, he weighed 190 lbs. when he was deployed. Today, he weighs a little more than 130 lbs. And, at just 22 years old, he found himself homeless.
At 17, Lewis had signed up for the army on what some might call a whim. “One morning, I just woke up and realized that the military was what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “A lot of people thought I was crazy.” Born and raised in New Orleans to a robotics engineer and a schoolteacher, Lewis turned down a baseball scholarship to LSU to enlist. “My mom wasn’t too happy about it, either,” he adds, smiling. Despite his family’s misgivings, Lewis headed to Ft. Benning, Georgia for basic training before he was deployed to Iraq from Ft. Hood. There, he found a brotherhood that he longs for to this day. “In the military, your brothers have your back,” he says. “But in the civilian world, it can feel like there’s no one looking out for you. It’s like you’re alone.”
That’s just how Lewis felt when he returned to Texas from Iraq: Alone. Without a safety net, he found his way to the Veteran’s Administration offices in South Austin to claim his benefits. But it took a month or so to file the necessary paperwork, which required getting his medical records sent over from Germany. And, for that month, Lewis was alone.
“I lived on the streets,” he said. “I never called my parents or anyone in my family for help. I was embarrassed, and I just felt like I wasn’t in the place I wanted to be.” His case manager at the VA told him about Green Doors’ Veteran’s Re-Entry Program, which houses veterans in a scattered-site model of shared single-family homes. Soon enough, Lewis had a bed to sleep in, a door to lock, and a plan to get to where he wants to be. This stability made him feel ready to call his mom to let her know he was back in the United States and, most importantly, safe.
This past February, Lewis moved into his own place at Treaty Oaks. He’s enrolled in the computer science program at Colorado Technical University, with a concentration on software engineering. And, though he hasn’t seen them in six years, Lewis talks to both of his parents regularly and tries to catch up with his eight siblings as much as he can. He doesn’t let his brain injuries slow him down one bit. “I learned a lot from being in the infantry, but there’s one thing that I carry with me every day,” Lewis says. “And that is: No matter what challenges you face, you’ve got to just keep moving forward.”