He always stood up straight as a plank of wood and his voice was loud, befitting a soldier’s command. But Tyrone Chatman had one trait that always seemed incongruous, given his military background. Whenever you would say something he vigorously agreed with, his eyes would lift and his smile would spread and he’d squeal the word, “HEL-LO?” as if it were obvious.
“Tyrone, there’s not enough awareness on homeless issues.”
“Tyrone, we need to raise more money for the needy.”
“Tyrone, did you catch that Lions loss?”
It always cracked me up, and he often fell in laughing with me. Tyrone Chatman had boundless enthusiasm for so much of life, but especially for those to whom others paid little attention — the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the underserved.
And so, after years as a soldier in Vietnam, he came home to Detroit and devoted himself to taking care of them.
You know what they call that?
A gentle soul
We met and became friends 14 years ago, when I started a charity called SAY Detroit and was looking for places that needed help. Someone suggested the Michigan Veterans Foundation, which was then in the Cass Corridor. I remember Tyrone arranged a full presentation of the colors, straight and somber and serious, veterans marching in straight lines with precise steps. Then he showed me the dining area, where volunteers were making sandwiches for the clients.
“Do you ever cook hot meals?” I asked.
“We don’t have a kitchen,” he said.
“What if we could build you one?”
“HEL-LO?” he replied.
We’d been working together ever since. Over the years, I’d seen Tyrone at countless events, always with his garrison cap and pins and patches, looking like he could step in front of line of new recruits and bark them into mission readiness.
But deep down, Tyrone was a gentle soul who had a heart for those whom society ignored. If he saw a veteran begging on the street, if he heard of one who was scrounging through garbage cans, if he discovered one sleeping in a car, battling mental issues, or suffering physical ailments, he stepped in. He offered housing and shelter and food.
People sometimes think of soldiers as taking lives.
Tyrone was saving them.
“It’s a no-brainer for us to take care of those who take care of this great nation,” he once said at a SAY Detroit event. “I am a Vietnam veteran. And when we came home, we came home to less than a hero’s welcome…(but) it takes a brave soul to raise their hand and take the oath and go away to do whatever it is they are required to do.
“So regardless of how you feel about politics, we say to people: soldiers are soldiers. If they come back, we owe them a debt of gratitude. … I’d never look outside this community for heroes — I know that they exist within this city.”
He was right.
He was one of them.
Lifetime of service
Tyrone was only 17 when he joined the Army. It was 1970, the year of Kent State and protests and people dying in those protests. But Tyrone deployed, first to Germany and later to Vietnam, in Ham Tan and Can Tho. He served honorably. When he came home in 1972, with medals on his chest, he could have said “That’s enough.” He could have shrunk from the insults he was greeted with by those who found the war offensive. People spat at returning soldiers back then. It’s one of the most shameful responses Americans have ever produced.
But Tyrone was undeterred. He continued his service by taking care of the needy. He got a degree in social work. He created a 20-bed homeless shelter and first-aid stations and an alcohol detox program.
He established the Michigan Veterans Foundation in 1989 and became well versed with post traumatic stress disorders, substance addiction and other haunting consequences that often follow those returning from battle, be it Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else. Despite recently boosted efforts, there are still around 40,000 homeless veterans in our country, who must seek shelter every night.
For the better part of 30 years, Tyrone stood up for them, pled their cases, raised money, raised awareness. And finally, a couple of years ago, he realized his dream of a new facility, on Detroit’s west side, which he affectionately called “the Pentagon.”
It’s a beautiful place. I remember how proud he was when together we built a computer lab there, because it signified future possibilities for the returning vets, not just focusing on problems of the past.
The last time I saw Tyrone, he was thinner than usual. One of my friends jokingly asked if he was training for a marathon, and he laughed and said, “Something like that.”
Turns out it was cancer, and the marathon was running from its grasp.
It didn’t last long. On Wednesday night, at age 67, Tyrone died from organ failure. True to form, he had told almost nobody of his battle or pain. Although he spoke endlessly of others’ suffering, he avoided talking about his own.
You know who does that? Soldiers. Servicemen and women. People who sacrifice so others can have it better.
I was stunned when I heard the news, and deeply saddened for his wife, children and grandchildren. The word “hero” is cheaply abused these days; we throw it on athletes, actors, people who do one nice thing that somehow goes viral.
Real heroes don’t ask for attention, but they do something every day that warrants it. Tyrone Chatman lived his life in that fashion. We used to jokingly salute one another, and it breaks my heart to know we’ll never do that again.
In war, the good die young. In peace, the good die, too, perhaps older, but still too soon. As Tyrone used to say, “It’s the land of the free because of the brave.” The man who gave new meaning to the word “HEL-LO” has said goodbye. He will truly be missed.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom