Finding a Way to Survive

by Wyatt Massey

Elliott Uglum has always been a storyteller. Anyone who has had a conversation with him can see how animated he is. He comes alive in his stories. Below, are just a few the stories Uglum shared with us.

  Elliot Uglum tells stories at a Gathering meal

Elliot Uglum tells stories at a Gathering meal

One moment, Elliot Uglum was playing “war games” in the Bayou of Louisiana. Then, he was in an actual war.

“Next thing you know, I’m on a ship going to Vietnam,” Uglum said.

Troubled by bad feet and the residual effects of three gunshot wounds, Uglum walks with care. Yet he speaks with force: He knows how to survive. It kept him alive in Vietnam, helped him overcome an alcohol addiction and multiple Wisconsin winters living in a tent.

“I’ve had a good life, I’ve had a rough life.”

Uglum was born and raised in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. When he could not find work after high school, Uglum traveled south on a rumor that there was work in Tennessee. His first job was fixing potholes on roadways in Memphis, Tennessee. He also found part-time work as a truck driver, taxi driver, body shop mechanic and sandwich cook.

Work, despite being part time, was steady. Uglum even fixed and painted a 1922 Bentley for a man in London, a job Uglum recalls with pride.

He was forced to leave those jobs behind, though, when he went to war.

Uglum and his friends often traveled to the French Cajun neighborhoods of Louisiana in the early 1970s to play “war games.” They would simulate battle situations with canoes in the swamps. One day, Uglum explained, a military recruiter saw him swimming and recruited him as a swim instructor in 1972.

Uglum’s movement in the water was noiseless. He kept his arms and legs low as to not disturb the water. The army needed this kind of training to sneak up on Vietnamese ships. Uglum became their instructor and mentor.

“Our job was to sink enemy ships,” Uglum said.

A group of soldiers would swim up to a ship and place plastic explosives on it. They had to move undetected in the dark since the ships were patrolled by armed Vietnamese soldiers, he said.

Uglum recalls he would often join the missions. After multiple years as an instructor, his time in the field ended when one such mission went awry. Vietnamese soldiers heard the unit and opened fire on the American attackers. He began pulling injured recruits out of the water when sharp pains ripped across his body. He had been shot in his left shoulder, left leg and between the shoulder blades. Uglum did not let the pain stop him from the rescue.

“I didn’t let go of either one,” Uglum said of the soldiers he was helping.

As the reality of his wounds set in, though, Uglum explained he needed critical medical attention or he would die.

“I started confessing to God everything I did wrong.”

Uglum was rushed to the nearest MASH station, which turned out to be an infirmary for Vietnamese soldiers. His recovery was slow but he had arrived in time. The colonel celebrated his 27th birthday in the enemy hospital.

When he was healthy enough to be moved, Uglum returned to the United States, ending his military career in 1977. Yet, he continues to wear an “Elite Squadron” button on his hat.

Uglum returned to Tennessee and his previous jobs. Not long after, his mother called. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was given six months to live. One of eight children, Uglum’s mother trusted him to run her house and finances. On her request, he moved to Wisconsin.

His mother died on December 9, 1980 at 9 p.m. The exact time is important to Uglum because, two hours later, he learned John Lennon was murdered. The coupling of bad news sent Uglum in a downward spiral.

“I spent six months drunk every day. Those were people I looked up to.”

Uglum was able to hide alcohol addiction enough to keep a job, first as a machinist until 1990 then as a doughnut shop manager until 2001, when he was laid off. Without steady income, he could no longer pay his rent.

The lack of support and nagging injuries from battle contributed to Uglum becoming one of the estimated 49,933 veteran homeless each night.

Yet, Uglum kept surviving. He spent the next two years living with his cousin in a tent between the railroad tracks and the Milwaukee River. They made the tent using a tarp and insulated it with straw from a local farmer. That straw insulated them from the harsh Wisconsin winters.

Finding food was another challenge.

“We ate out of dumpsters and garbage cans,” Uglum said. “If we got sick, we wouldn’t eat out of those garbage cans anymore.”

The two made some money recycling aluminum cans they found. When they had saved enough, they would go to a restaurant for dinner.

Uglum lived in the tent until 2003. By that time, he no longer had shoes and his feet would bleed and well from crushing the aluminum cans. He lives in Milwaukee now, receives disability payments and is saving for his next big adventure: moving out of the cold weather of Wisconsin.

“I’m waiting to get enough money to go back to Tennessee.”


Wyatt Massey is a volunteer storyteller for the Gathering. Read more of his work here.