Just like so many other drivers in Oakland County, Dr. Joseph Guettler of Bloomfield Hills saw the two homeless veterans at the corner of Woodward and Big Beaver just about every day.
After seeing them for so long, he decided to stop and talk with them to learn more about what they were all about.
That simple decision would lead to a drastic change in their lives, one that they say they will be eternally grateful for.
Building a Connection
After stopping to speak with Rafael and Jesse on a regular basis, Dr. Guettler started bringing lunch to them. He learned about their history and what brought them to where they were, and he particularly found the older of the two, Rafael, fun to talk to. Dr. Guettler, who is an orthopedic sports surgeon at UnaSource Surgery Center in Troy and William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, was drawn to them after learning their stories, which he found fascinating.
Although life did create various hardships for them, both men had served in the military. Rafael was a three-time combat veteran, including serving in Afghanistan.
Both of the men had post-traumatic stress disorder. Rafael had attended a treatment program, but it was only temporary due to others veterans’ needs for similar assistance. Rafael also had undergone several surgeries in order to get shrapnel removed out of his body.
Both of the men had lost both of their parents at a young age.
They Deserve a Break
What happened with Jesse in particular really had an impact on the foundation of the relationship among the three men.
Jesse had told Dr. Guettler that he also had served time in Afghanistan, but was dishonorably discharged. That eventually led to greater hardships for him, and he just hadn’t gotten his life back together yet, Jesse had said.
So Dr. Guettler reached over and shook Jesse’s hand, saying, ““I don’t care what happens. Thank you for your service.’”
After driving away, Dr. Guettler looped around the avenue on his route, but as he came back around and passed them, something pulled at his heart strings.
Jesse had his head down in his hands, and he was crying.
“I believe in my heart of hearts that he was moved because he was shown respect and perhaps felt dignity for the first time in a long time,” Dr. Guettler said.
Dr. Guettler, fondly known as “Dr. Joe,” stopped to see them and brought lunch regularly over the course of several days.
“What’s the deal? What’s the plan?” he had asked them at one point. “What needs to happen to get you off the street?”
At that time, he learned that the men hoped to get a van in order to weather the winter. Paying for a hotel room wasn’t feasible. They didn’t feel secure sleeping in a shelter. The only option left was perhaps staying in an abandoned house, which is unsafe and often illegal.
“I said, ‘We need to get you off the street.’”
Dr. Joe said he helped them because it was the right thing to do.
“I’m a Christian. I love my vets,” he said, adding that regardless of what hardships had occurred, they still served our country and deserved a break. “This was a laser-targeted mission: Two guys. Let’s see if we can change their lives.”
The name of the mission? …
‘Operation Dream Cruise’
During one of their conversations, Jesse told Dr. Joe that his childhood friend’s father owned a logging company in southern Tennessee and wanted them to come work with him. However, because they lived financially day-by-day and had no reliable transportation, the men found it difficult to get there.
But Dr. Joe wouldn’t accept that for an answer.
In mid-August, he reached out to the congregation of the church he attends, Cross of Christ in Bloomfield Hills, and told them the story. He also contacted his friends, other doctors at UnaSource, and some of the companies he has worked with. People near and far reached into their pockets to help, and between their donations and Dr. Joe’s matches, he amassed an amazing $7,000 in only three days.
All the while, he remained in contact with Rafael and Jesse, who were overwhelmed with the kindness and support.
“They couldn’t believe it,” Dr. Joe said. “I kept saying, ‘Listen, this is going to happen.’”
Dr. Guettler set the wheels in motion even further. He went online and found a van for $5,000 that had been rigged for tailgating at Michigan State University Spartan games. He told the seller the story, and the seller knocked $500 off the price tag.
Dr. Joe also helped the veterans obtain insurance on the vehicle, and he has taken them shopping to purchase new clothing, sleeping bags, and food.
The van has broken down twice since it was purchased, but “Steve” at Midas in Royal Oak is fixing everything at cost and donating the labor.
Because the veterans are not expected to start their new jobs in Tennessee until the end of September, Dr. Guettler has them housed in a hotel, is helping them fix their van, and is taking care of them in general.
And the support keeps on growing. As of the beginning of September, Dr. Guettler had raised more than $10,000 total for their future.
Operation Dream Cruise: Mission accomplished.
‘2nd Chance at Life’
Rafael recently wrote to Dr. Guettler on behalf of both of them to express their gratitude to him, UnaSource, the church, and the overall community for their support.
“Speaking for myself, I know that when the going gets tough anytime down the road … I will think back to this day of unexpected kindness and love along with all the members of the church, the coworkers, friends, and of you specifically, Dr.Joe, and your wonderful family who put the spark which started the fire and saw the realization of two soldiers’ dream come true on this day,” he writes.
“Being in the situation that I was in, you don’t have time to dream because you are so focused on surviving day to day – shelter and food to survive another day safely. You don’t have the luxury of a dream, but with the most kind act I have ever witnessed, let alone had the honor to be on the receiving end of this act. The day felt truly unreal, and I think honestly that gravity of the situation is just starting to sink in.
“I give you my word that I will do everything within the power of my body and spirit to fulfill the hopes and kindness that was shown and put upon us today. The whole thing is simply amazing and unbelievable, and I don’t think there is enough space on my phone’s memory to write down all of the emotions of thanks and love I have for each and everyone who helped fulfill my dream today. I have a 2nd chance at life now because of everyone’s efforts and gifts of love to give Jesse and I the opportunity to have a 2nd chance to restore the self-respect of being a contributing member of my community and a friend to those who have befriended me and to be able one day to be able to pay this great day and amazing act forward.
“Thank you eternally,
— Rafael and Jesse”