Former soldier Neil Murphy wears camouflage and combat boots as he sifts through ashtrays outside Tucson's veterans hospital in search of cigarette butts.

"These people smoke like chimneys," he declares of the patients and staff, a thought that makes him chuckle.

Later, the white-bearded Army veteran treks a mile or so to a local soup kitchen, stopping to rinse his face in the drinking fountain of a city park.

"I may be homeless," says Murphy, 59, "but I like to be presentable."

Lining up for a breakfast of day-old doughnuts, he connects with Roger Dickerson, 62, a homeless ex-soldier haunted by thoughts of suicide.

After coffee and kibitzing, the pair head back to a parched patch of desert that holds their home, a shanty made of blankets and tarps not far from the VA hospital water tower.

Plastic grocery bags filled with donated fruit hang from the trees. Lizards skitter past. Three steel pipes lie on the ground, makeshift weapons to ward off intruders.

"Out here, it's like you're at war almost," says Murphy. "You have to maintain your situational awareness."

Dinner for each is a 40-ouncer of St. Ides High Gravity Malt Liquor - $2 a bottle - which they swig near sunset, seated on milk crates or concrete blocks.

"I drink more than I should," says Dickerson, who has gray hair, owlish glasses and a mustache stained with nicotine.

"There's a lot of people out here who have mental depression," he says of the homeless.

"That's why I think there's so much drinking and drug abuse."

Nearly 700 military veterans are homeless in Pima County, according to government estimates.

Murphy and Dickerson have lived on the streets off and on for nearly 30 years between them, and say that's where they expect to die.

It's not that there's no help for them. On the contrary, there's more aid available than ever.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is pouring millions of new dollars into assistance programs - nearly half a million more this year in Tucson alone.

The extra help comes at a time when Vietnam-era veterans, historically the largest segment of homeless ex-troops, are growing too old to cope with the rigors of street life.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki recently vowed that America will end veteran homelessness within five years.

"Those who have served this nation as veterans should never find themselves on the streets," Shinseki said on the agency's website.

While some local veterans are taking advantage of the extra help, others, like Murphy and Dickerson, are leery, illustrating the challenge the VA faces in trying to make good on the pledge.

Mistrust of government bureaucracy runs high among homeless veterans. So do mental illness and substance abuse, which can compromise rational decision-making, says H. Clarke Romans, executive director of the Southern Arizona branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

More than half of all homeless people - veterans and non-veterans - suffer from mental-health problems, and many use drugs or alcohol to try to cope, Romans says.

In the military world, mental illness carries such stigma that some veterans are loath to seek help, Romans says.

"We work with veterans who wouldn't touch the VA with a barge pole," he says. "They don't see it as a friendly recovery environment."

Murphy, a former Army vehicle mechanic during the Vietnam era, has mixed feelings.

"The VA seems to thinks I'm half-crazy, and I think they're half-crazy," he says. "They said: 'Are you homeless? You must be depressed.' I said, 'I'm not depressed - I'm having a blast!' "

Moments later, though, he says he recently inquired about a VA housing program to get off the streets.

But that would require him to work with a case manager, something Murphy doubts he could handle after years of answering to no one but himself.

He's never been married, and left his last job at a local electronics firm eight years ago.

"You can't take someone who's been camping in the desert for years and expect them to go to the other extreme," Murphy says.

Dickerson doesn't pretend to like living "in the weeds," a slang term for street life.

His depression gets so bad, he says, that he sometimes bolts awake at night, wanting to end his life.

"He keeps talking about pulling the plug" says Murphy.

"I wake up and it's like I'm in a mist," adds Dickerson. "It scares the hell out of me."

On the streets, former troops tend to stick together, preferring their own company to that of "civilians," as they refer to homeless people who never served.

"Veterans have a sense of integrity. They won't rip you off," says Murphy. "Civilians will tell people where your camp is and where you stash your booze."

Even after years of street life, some veterans retain small habits from their military days.

At Tucson's Primavera shelter, some make up their bunk beds the way they learned in basic training, tight enough to bounce a quarter off the top blanket.

Dickerson, a bachelor with no family ties, says he's considered getting into a VA detox program. But the thought terrifies him.

"Mentally and emotionally, I couldn't handle it. I couldn't stand the pressure.

"I just go with the flow," he says with a sigh. "I'm getting by the best way I can."

Ricky Garrard, 49, a formerly homeless ex-Marine, understands the misgivings some veterans have about getting help. He also knows the rewards of doing so.

A few years ago, Garrard was sleeping in alleys, getting blitzed on Budweiser and smoking crushed cigarette butts plucked from sidewalks. He became homeless after a relationship breakup and job loss.

Now he's gone through VA rehab, is renting a house through a VA housing program and works at the VA hospital through a work- therapy program.

Garrard has a big incentive to succeed. He has seven children, ages 8 to 25, the youngest of whom have been wards of the state the last few years.

He looks forward to building a future for them "being the kind of father I never had."

Garrard says getting off the streets required a willingness to face the most wounded parts of his psyche.

In rehab, he and other homeless veterans discovered a sad commonality: Many had grown up with parents who were substance abusers.

"Putting that into words brought a lot of us to tears," Garrard recalls. "It brought a lot of emotions to the surface."

The memories were so traumatic that some homeless participants quit rehab and went back to the streets - "to their comfort zone," he says.

Garrard still sees them sometimes, at bus stops or on sidewalks.

"They're all torn and tattered, but they look at me like they're proud of me."

Homeless veterans who refuse help "are basically scared of change," he says.

"It takes a lot of courage to change. But some people just give up on themselves."

In his own case, "failure is not an option," Garrard says.

"I'm stubborn. I'm a Marine," he says. "And I'm not giving up on me."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at or at 573-4138.