Jimmie Martin and Grace Flott each had life-altering tragedies behind them when they came together to fight what seemed only to be a small injustice. But there was a lot more to it than that.
By Tim Connor
If you were within sight and earshot, there would be several first things to notice about Jimmie Martin and Grace Flott as they began their brief reunion last month.
Grace Flott and Jimmie Martin
He’s the older black man in the white polo shirt buttoned all the way to the top. She is the tall and young white woman with the red earrings. But even if your eyes didn’t reach them, it would be hard not to notice the richness of their voices. Grace’s voice is smooth and deep, and travels down hallways and corners with ease, like a sheet of cool air flowing out the bottom of a cave. Jimmie’s voice is soft, by comparison, but rich and nuanced in his inflections, as though he is a trained musician.
Long before he came to Spokane in 1996, before he lost his job, and his home and, for a while, his ability to support himself, Jimmie Martin was a soldier in Vietnam. What happened in Vietnam didn’t stay in Vietnam. It came home with him in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Only Jimmie Martin didn’t know that. He endured a very tough stretch in his life and then, five years ago, purposefully began to rebuild himself.
“I used to take life for granted,” he says. “And some of the things I had to go through, it made me realize that life is much more important, that you have to work hard at what you want.”
Jimmie was well on the way back, but still had a ways to go, when he met the man he describes as his mentor and a dear new friend, Jerry Gutman. This was a year ago.
Gutman is a Vietnam veteran too, having served there in the Army in the mid-1960s. A retired human resources specialist, Gutman and his wife, Bernice, happened to be watching a television program featuring Michele Obama in January of 2011 when the First Lady, appearing with Oprah Winfrey, made a moving appeal in support of returning soldiers and their families. Bernice is a retired psychologist.
“We discussed it,” Gutman says, “and readily agreed that our country owes a great deal to our vets, going all the way back to Vietnam Vets. When I came home from Vietnam, nobody knew from PTSD or TBI [traumatic brain injury]. I encountered my own set of challenges, and, you know, made out the best I could. But in any case, Bernice and I decided that supporting the reintegration of returning vets, coming home from repeated deployments, is something we wanted to do.”
The couple enlisted as volunteers in the Spokane Veterans Forum. The Forum is an adjunct to the Spokane Veterans Court that Judge Vance Peterson (who is now serving in Afghanistan) started in September 2010 as a way to focus on military veterans facing non-violent criminal offenses. The Court’s purpose is to expedite getting troubled vets the counseling and treatment they need, rather than just putting them in jail. The Forum serves and coordinates the court-required rehabilitation plans for the vets, and convenes regularly at the National Guard’s Readiness Center at Spokane Community College. That’s where Jerry Gutman first noticed Jimmie Martin when Martin was one of half dozen vets in one of the first groups Gutman joined as a counselor.
“Jimmie was sitting in a corner,” Gutman recalls. “He was kind of quiet and I approached him to get acquainted and to see if there was a connection there.”
The two spoke for an hour that day, in early 2011, and very quickly Jerry Gutman became Jimmie Martin’s mentor.
“I used to take life for granted. And some of the things I had to go through, it made me realize that life is much more important, that you have to work hard at what you want.”–Jimmie Martin.
“Long-term PTSD symptoms show up in people years after they leave the military,” Gutman says, “particularly if they haven’t received some support and counseling. In Jimmie’s case he went from having a job, being a supervisor, to being homeless, to being arrested, to having multiple traffic tickets, all kinds of other minor infractions, and these were all symptomatic of the fact that he wasn’t coping well in his life. This is all very typical of what happens to veterans when they come home from a stressful deployment. Whatever triggers it, the symptoms need to be address and treated if they’re going to be relieved. That, in a nutshell, is what was going on in Jimmie’s life, and if you can think of being arrested as a blessing in disguise, in this case it sure was.”
Another person Jimmie Martin met at the Spokane Veterans Forum was Virla Spencer, the outreach coordinator for the Center for Justice. Virla gave Jimmie her card. It wasn’t long before he used it.
“I woke up in a different country.”—Grace Flott
Only by coincidence, the staff at the Center for Justice learned about Virla’s Spencer’s outreach to local veterans at the same meeting, last September, that we learned Grace Flott would be volunteering with us.
There are a myriad stories of people who come to the Center seeking help, but never a story like this. Here was a young woman, in the wake of a harrowing, near-death experience, seeking us out to help us do our work.
Grace was in Paris last spring, doing her undergraduate studies at Sciences Po, an academy not far from the Eiffel Tower, when someone purposely set fire to the apartment building in which she was living. The fire killed her American roommate and also claimed the life of a fellow student and friend from Australia. After sustaining serious burns on more than half her body, Grace forced herself to jump from the fifth floor of the burning structure. The fall broke an ankle and two vertebrae in her back. She was flown from Paris to Seattle to be hospitalized at Harborview Hospital for her burns and other injuries.
“I think this summer was probably the hardest,” she says. “This year has been the hardest of my life.”
Grace grew up in Spokane where she graduated in 2008 from Ferris High School. Last summer, after being able to leave the hospital in Seattle, she came home to Spokane where, with the support of her family, she could live outside the hospital but continue an intensive physical rehabilitation.
“When I realized that I had to stay here, in Spokane, for my recovery I also needed to look at what I could do so I wouldn’t stir crazy here, while still going through physical therapy,” Grace says. So she asked herself: “How can I make the best of this?”
Before going to France, when she was a student at the University of Washington, Grace was already an activist, having become involved in an organization called United Students Against Sweatshops.
“So, with the Center for Justice being one of the few organizations that does any kind of community advocacy,” she says, “I kind of latched on to it.”
No one was happier about Grace’s decision than Suellen Pritchard. It’s a poorly-kept secret that while CA exists to help some of the neediest in the Spokane community, it is also, under Suellen’s direction, a veritable launching pad for interns and volunteers.
“I was really moved by her story,” Suellen recalls. “Just her ability to come out of that whole ordeal and come to work for us. She crossed huge barriers when she came to work for us.”
“I think I knew, just inherently, that I was at a mental place to be able to step outside myself.”–Grace Flott
And, as fate would have it, the first CFJ client she would be walking with was Jimmie Martin.
“What I did was come in and tell Grace what my problem was,” Jimmie says. “She had this ability to take over and she just took over.”
Well, yes and no.
“I think that I saw the same thing in Jimmie,” Grace says. “The fact that he was so engaged. I think after you go through something like I went through, you can kind of inherently tell when someone is really present and enthusiastic. We can give resources to almost anybody, but ultimately it’s up to the client to see that through.”
Jimmie had come to the Center because, on the way to get his life back, he’d been defrauded by an unscrupulous landlord.
Three years earlier, because he was unable to afford a place on his own, he’d entered into a program run by a local charity. A quid pro quo of the arrangement was that the charity controlled the very modest income Jimmie received.
“They [the charity] were monitoring everything that we were doing,” Jimmie says, “which was okay. But they were a little strict, and the little money I was getting, I wasn’t able to spend the way I wanted.”
By then, he’d met the Spokane man who would be his new landlord, and been offered an apartment in a “raggedy” building not far from the Spokane County Courthouse.
“It took me six months to get in there,” Jimmie says, “but I took it because it was cheaper” and because it got him out from under the thumb of the charity. By that time, he’d begun to collect Social Security and, now, “I was able to do what I wanted with it, rather than them think I can’t handle my money. That’s what insulted me.”
The new place was, in Jimmie’s words, a “downgrade” from where he’d been living before. But once he got in, he became eligible for a housing subsidy program that, while covering half his rent, also required that Jimmie stay in the apartment for another year, at least until September 1, 2011.
During his time in the building, Jimmie helped the woman who managed the place by shoveling snow, fixing windows, and doing other maintenance tasks. In return, the landlord’s brother, from Seattle, would send him small checks for the work.
Seeking to recover the $250 damage deposit he’d paid in 2008, Jimmie gave the landlord the required notice that he was moving out. This was in August.
“I knew he had a history of not giving other people their money back,” Jimmie says. “But I just knew I was going to be different because I did all the right things. But I was treated just like I was a nobody and like I didn’t deserve my money back.”
Labor Day came. No refund. Finally, after another two weeks passed, Jimmie went to where the landlord worked in order to confront him directly. The man claimed not to have had time to inspect the apartment, a hollow excuse given Jimmie’s experience with the landlord’s business agent who always seemed very prompt to bother tenants for their rent checks.
Without getting his money, or even a clear commitment that he’d get his deposit back, Jimmie Martin pulled out the card Virla Spencer had given him and made a call on the Center for Justice.
“He made that decision,” Jerry Gutman says with discernible satisfaction. “I don’t make decisions for Jimmie Martin. He decided this landlord wasn’t going to cheat him out of two hundred and fifty bucks.”
What Gutman saw was Jimmie working with Grace Flott and CFJ attorney Julie Schaffer as the two investigated the predicament and helped prepare a course of action to help Jimmie recover his deposit.
Jimmie did not know, at the time, what his new advocate had so recently been through, and the strides that she, herself, was making.
“I would have never thought that you were going through what you were going through, then coming here and taking on my case” Jimmie told Grace when the two came together at the Center in late March. “You never discussed it with me. But I really appreciate that. Just like you said, it takes a lot from a person. A person has to be here in order to help someone out, and I really appreciate that, and that’s what showed up, and that’s why I won because you had enough heart to dedicate yourself to it.”
There’s a bit more to the story, though.
The route to the resolution was through small claims court. There, the rules required Jimmie Martin to present his own case to the judge.
That day came on January 25th, and the person who went to the courthouse with Jimmie was Jerry Gutman.
“I was sitting at his elbow,” Gutman says, “as his mentor, to intervene, to help him out. But he didn’t need any help. He presented the facts very clearly, answered the judge’s questions and got the judgment very quickly.”
By Washington law, the judgment was twice the damage deposit, plus another $39 in fees, for a total of $539.
The legal victory was not without a final indignity.
“Jerry was at my house when the mailman brought the check,” Jimmie says. “He told me to check on the check before I deposited it with my bank. And good thing I did.”
The check bounced.
“So I called Jerry,” Jimmie recalls, “I laughed all the way from the bank, man. Because I wasn’t mad no more. After all we’d gone through, I wasn’t mad. And I was so happy not to be mad, even though the check bounced.”
One way to make sense of his happiness is to view it in light of what had happened, in the meantime, in Jimmie’s life. This was all the hard work over the past year, as Jerry Gutman helped guide Jimmie through the steps needed to get the proper diagnosis, treatment and compensation for the post-traumatic stress inflicted decades ago.
And, yet, there was still the matter of the $539. Jimmie would finally get the money by committing to regularly appearing in the landlord’s bank until, finally, in early March, there were sufficient funds to cover the check.
The big lesson from this story, says Jerry Gutman, is that when it came to the unscrupulous landlord, Jimmie made the decision that he was not going to be cheated out of his two hundred and fifty dollars.
“For the first time in his life Jimmie Martin used the legal system, used the legal system to gain his outcome, and was not the victim of the legal system. That was a huge ‘ah-hah’ for him.”–Jerry Gutman
A week after finally being able to cash the landlord’s check, Jimmie Martin graduated from the Spokane Veterans Forum. It was another towering step in his personal resurgence and, in gratitude, he wanted to not only buy all the food for the hundred or so people who would attend the ceremony, but cook it too. Jerry Gutman persuaded him to let him share that load, so the two of them wound up spending an afternoon cooking in Jerry and Bernice’s double-ovened kitchen.
“Jerry has supported me in all of the progress I have made,” Jimmie told the audience on graduation night. “I have found a friend forever.”
Gutman was deeply touched.
“I’d told Jimmie, ‘you know, when we get done with this court order thing, you’re not going to get rid of me.’ And he said, ‘damn right.’”
After a brief break, Jerry Gutman will come back to the Spokane Veterans Forum this summer and look for another veteran to mentor, and he fully expects Jimmie Martin to be his partner in that and other endeavors.
“He helps people,” Jerry says. “He helped his next door neighbor who had a drug episode and he’s continued to help his past neighbors, staying in touch with these folks and even helping another guy that the landlord was trying to cheat by turning him toward the Center for Justice. Jimmie’s paying it forward, if you know what I’m talking about. He just does that.”
When she and Jimmie reunited in March, Grace was visiting Spokane on a spring break from her studies. She had returned to the University of Washington in January, to resume her work toward degrees in International Studies and French.
After she listened to Jimmie share his life story, Grace quietly revealed that she has her own post-traumatic stress struggles from the brutal memories of the fire last year, in Paris.
“Silence is such a killer,” she said in a near whisper.
“It is,” Jimmie Martin, said softly back.
“And through this whole thing with the Center for Justice,” Grace continued, “it was like whatever I’d gone through, it just never felt so insurmountable when I was here because of the people I would talk to and their own experiences. Even if it was just this window, a tiny window into their lives, it’s like you could tap into this constructive power. Whatever they’re dealing with it seems to make your own struggle that much more bearable, if you can share the experience with other people.”
Jimmie Martin nodded.
“A lot of times when you think you’re having a bad day,” he said, “when you think you’ve got the bad problems, there’s always somebody out there worse off than us. That’s the way I look at it. Every day.”