Local WWII vet, 90, at risk of being homeless


Utsler had survived 50 death-defying missions over Europe as a top turret gunner and flight engineer on a B-24 bomber crew. He was in his early 20s, single and had no idea what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

"I was so confused," he said.

More than half a century later, that unsettling sense of being adrift has returned.

Utsler has outlived most of his friends and family. Now he spends his days watching television alone in his threadbare room at Midtown Terrace Suites, a housing facility for veterans.

He heats frozen dinners in a microwave, and naps as the air conditioner gurgles under the window. Sometimes he drives to the supermarket in his 2004 Hyundai Elantra, just to have something to do.

Mostly, the 90-year-old World War II veteran ponders how he ended up at the Main Street facility, and where his life is headed.

"I say my prayers and then I get to thinking about, you know, `There's people in this world a lot worse off than I am,' and then it cheers me up a bit," he said. "So I just play it one day at a time. That's all you can do."

Utsler sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs for the first time three months ago.

A falling-out with relatives had left him stranded at Hobby Airport, sleeping in a chair, without any transportation or place to go. An airport employee urged Utsler to go to Houston's Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, and arranged a van to take him there.

He is one of a handful of World War II veterans in Houston who have found themselves adrift late in life, at risk of homelessness.

"We've had a few of them over the years, but he's probably the oldest," says Tom Mitchell of U.S. Vets, the nonprofit that runs the facility where Utsler lives.

About 5 percent of the city's homeless population is over the age of 70, said Luis R. Paulino, who supervises the VA's health care for homeless veterans program in Houston.

"We're starting to see more seniors," Paulino said. "These folks are already on limited income and no family and they have aged and found themselves at risk, or they have had medical complications that, frankly, just drained them."

Utsler grew up in Shelbyville, Ind. His father left his mother with six children she couldn't support, and they landed in an orphanage for about a year.

Their grandmother took Utsler and his little brother, Charlie. Uncles and aunts adopted the four girls.

Utsler's grandmother did laundry and cleaned houses to make ends meet. The boys washed cars and sold newspapers in bars to help out.

They dropped out of school, but their efforts weren't always enough. Many nights, Utsler said, they went to bed hungry.

He remembers his grandmother standing in line for beans and bread during the Great Depression.

"We never had a child's life, you know, like kids have today," he said.

In 1940, at age 18, Utsler joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, which sent him to Utah and Wyoming to build fences with other young Americans who needed work. He made $21 a week and sent $11 back home to his family.

"But then the war broke out and I wanted to get into it," Utsler said. "My country needed me and I enlisted."

He served in the Army Air Corps' 376 Bombardment Group, 513th Squadron, from 1942-45.

During the Korean War, he returned to the military for a stint in the Air Force, this time flying on B-29s.

"You do a lot of praying and I knew the Good Lord was up there, an angel on my shoulder, for a lot of those raids," Utsler said.

About half a dozen times, he didn't think he'd make it back to base.

Once, a burst of anti-aircraft fire blew out the cockpit windshield.

Another time, he recalled, the bomber limped back on only two of four engines, the wings and fuselage shot so full of holes it seemed impossible that it could remain in the air.

"When we had trouble, we flew a lot of `em that we shouldn't have flied, but we needed them for an all-out effort," Utsler said.

After the war, he flew every raid again in his sleep for 10 or 15 years. But the nightmares faded with time, and he went on to become a jack-of-all-trades who tried his hand at every job from trolley driver in Indiana to casino host in Nevada. He retired at 85.

Utsler considers himself a lucky man. After dodging anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters, he thinks of every day as a blessing, even when times get tough.

"If the Good Lord takes me tomorrow, I can say I've had a full life," he said, "and I can say I've been there and done that because I have been there and done that."

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