When Warriors Come Home
Vietnam veteran Stephen Peck (C68) abandoned his film career to advocate for his homeless comrades.
When documentary filmmaker Stephen Peck (C68) wrote and directed a film about homeless Vietnam War veterans living in Venice Beach, Calif., it changed his life.
"The loss of dignity that homeless people suffer, the hopelessness and the callousness of society — it bothered me," says Peck. "I thought maybe there was something I could do to change that."
He began presenting his film Far from Home to draw attention to the issue, and in 1991 he created the Far from Home Foundation to support the cause. "I discovered that I had connected with so many people and become so involved in homeless issues that I couldn't walk away from it." He hasn't made a film since.
Peck has more than a passing interest in Vietnam veterans — he is one. He went to war just after graduating from Northwestern, where he studied film, largely due to the influence of his late father, actor Gregory Peck. "After my sophomore year, I got a draft notice," Peck says. "While some guys were planning what they were going to do after college, I was wondering whether I was going to survive."
Peck, who enrolled in the U.S. Marine Corps officer training program, spent 11 months in an infantry unit, where he was responsible for radioing map coordinates when artillery was needed. "Combat is not a fun experience," he says. "I was scared all the time. You do what you have to do to protect yourself and those around you."
After completing his three-year commitment, Peck attended graduate film school at the University of Southern California, then "bounced around for a while," working on That's Hollywood and other television shows before making his first documentary.
In 1990, 20 years after returning from Vietnam, Peck directed and co-produced the award-winning Heart of the Warrior, about Vietnam War and Soviet-Afghanistan War veterans who return to the countries where they once fought. The project reunited Peck with his past.
Peck made Far from Home a year later, then returned to USC to earn a master's degree in social work while working for the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Since 1996 Peck has served as community development director for the United States Veterans Initiative, a nonprofit that provides homeless veterans with temporary housing, counseling and employment assistance at 10 sites in five states and Washington, D.C.
When the organization's Las Vegas site lost funding from the Department of Labor, Peck wrote to Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, minority leader of the appropriations committee. Reid ensured that 20 percent more funding would be available when U.S. VETS reapplies this year.
"Steve's leadership inside that organization has been really influential on the whole scope of the homeless veterans issue," said Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. "He's been able to help on a nationwide basis — to influence policymakers to bring more services to homeless veterans."
There are approximately 300,000 homeless veterans living on America's streets each night, and roughly one-third of all homeless males are veterans. Despite these daunting numbers, Peck maintains a soldier's determination toward his cause. "I think a lot of people have resigned themselves to the fact that there are going to be homeless people. I have not resigned myself to that fact.
"Homelessness to me in this country is particularly egregious. We're too rich to have this many homeless. It's shocking. It shouldn't exist. We should make more of an effort to prevent people from falling through the cracks."
— Robert Brenner (J07)
To learn more about the United States Veterans Initiative, visit www.usvetsinc.org.