Eugene Morris is tickled. He's giddy, even.
Morris, 59, a disabled Vietnam veteran, recently moved into a small Ogden rental home after years on the streets. This month, he marked a year of sobriety after a long history of addiction. He's even grateful for a drug-dealing arrest two years ago, and credits the arresting officers with setting him on a path that helped him turn his life around.
But that's not what has Morris grinning.
"They put my face on a bus," Morris said, smiling. "My friends in Salt Lake told me they've seen it drive by. My face, on the side of a bus. That's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I've got to get a picture of me, standing next to it."
The UTA bus image is an advertisement for "Street Vets," a new documentary by former Ogden resident Issac Goeckeritz, who spent more than a year conducting interviews and taping footage at Ogden's Homeless Veterans Fellowship, a center that offers such services as counseling and transitional housing to homeless vets who are sober and trying to improve their lives.
Morris was one of 10 veterans who, nearly four years back, shared their stories with the young filmmaker. The resulting documentary premieres at 8 p.m. Monday on KUED Channel 7.
It all started in 2007, when Goeckeritz decided to donate his old TV set to a charity in his neighborhood. Goeckeritz walked into the Homeless Veterans Fellowship, which at the time was home mostly to Vietnam veterans. Many of the older men still struggled with the mental and physical damage left by what they had seen and done, and haunted by the hostile reception they received upon returning from the unpopular war.
"Everything was new to me," recalled Goeckeritz, now 28 and living in Salt Lake City, but still commuting to Weber State University to finish his geology degree.
"I didn't live through Vietnam, and you never learn about the '70s in history class. It was just kind of fascinating to me to learn of firsthand experiences from that time."
Morris remembers being impressed by the fledgling filmmaker, who has since completed the documentaries "Ogden: Junction City of the West" and "Uintah United."
"I was inspired by Issac," said Morris, who served in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 1972. "He was filming, doing it on his own, with his own resources. He's a remarkable person."
One of the subjects
Morris, a self-taught artist with warm eyes and an easy smile, has lingering physical and mental problems since the war. He takes medication for a bipolar condition, he said, but he insists on prescriptions that are non-narcotic, to help himself stay sober.
Morris had an earlier brush with fame in the 1990s, when he and two other homeless, disabled veterans living in Salt Lake City opened an artists' studio, called the Crippled Quill, in an abandoned warehouse. Two Salt Lake City newspapers and several television stations ran stories.
In 2007, Goeckeritz photographed most of Morris' artworks, many of which feature eagles, flags and patriotic themes. After Morris left the Homeless Veterans Fellowship, he relapsed, he said, and abused alcohol and various street drugs including cocaine.
"I was severely depressed, and I tried to wreck myself," he said. "I tried suicide, and I was addicted to drugs, and I sold drugs to support my habit."
Morris lost all of his stored artwork and art supplies during his 2008 relapse, when he missed a deadline to pay off a delinquent bill at a storage facility.
"I had the money, but I withdrew $500 from the ATM to buy drugs, and I didn't know there was a $500-a-day (withdrawal) limit," Morris said. "It was a Saturday, and I couldn't get more money, and I couldn't get anybody to lend me the money."
The contents of his unit were auctioned off, Morris said, and the photos Goeckeritz took are the only evidence of years of work.
But Morris had lost belongings before -- items he stored at friends' homes, or even outdoors, in the bushes -- when he was homeless
"You sleep where you can," Morris said, "on friends' floors, in stairwells, under bridges, wherever you could lay your head. It comes with the territory. It's exhausting and it's dangerous. It's no fun."
Drug-dealing money was paying the rent about two years ago, when Ogden police raided his home, Morris said.
"The police saved my life," said Morris, who instead of jail was sent to rehabilitation. He completed a program at First Step House, a substance abuse facility in Salt Lake City. A First Step completion certificate hangs, framed, in the small, cottage-style house Morris recently moved into.
"The police did their job, and I am grateful to them," Morris said. "I've got a year with sobriety, and my life is good."
Strangers to friends
Back in 2007, Goeckeritz took his time with the veterans, developing relationships and trust before he asked permission to bring in a camera.
"The guys were enjoyable to talk to," the filmmaker said. "They were interesting, and were a lot funnier than I thought they would be. I followed them from spring to the following winter, getting updates on what they were doing, and also coming whenever they had a speaker in or a barbecue."
Goeckeritz also visited five other veterans' assistance agencies around the nation as part of his research. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to interview leaders at the national Veterans Administration. He searched the National Archives for Vietnam combat footage.
"When I talked to my dad about this project, he told me people still have a lot of opinions from this era," Goeckeritz said.
"I decided I would produce the film as a 28-year-old who didn't live through the period. I didn't have any biases in my head. I didn't have hardened opinions I might have if I lived through it. Maybe if I do a project on homeless vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, I will have more opinions."
Goeckeritz still keeps in contact with most of the men he profiled in his hourlong documentary, he said. Most have improved their lives, at least in small ways.
"If you are working with homeless people, you have to have patience," the filmmaker said. "If you have been homeless or addicted to drugs for two years, it will probably take longer than that to get out. And you can't say all people are homeless because of drugs and alcohol. The men had been through all kinds of traumatic experiences. Several of the guys have lost wives or family members in car accidents. Several have had cancer, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are just a lot of factors that people have to work through."
A life reclaimed
Morris talked excitedly about his future as he sat on a sofa that still had its price tag attached. He's optimistic and grateful, and he credits caring counselors, especially those at the Homeless Veterans Fellowship, First Step and Salt Lake City's George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, with helping him get his life on track.
Counselors taught him new ways to cope with his problems, and he said they helped him see the importance of avoiding old friends and situations that might test his resolve to stay clean.
Morris was looking forward to having dinner out with Goeckeritz before they attended a Friday library screening of "Street Vets," he said. And Morris was plotting to get Goeckeritz to photograph him with a certain Salt Lake City bus.
On a larger life scale, Morris said his goals are to remain positive, work on his art, and stay on course with the new life he is building.
He's also hoping to return to school. As a younger man, Morris said, he earned an associate's degree in criminal justice, in hopes of ultimately continuing to law school. He's trying to decide now whether to study art or law.
"I know my art inspires people, because they have told me," he said, smiling. "But I think if I studied law, I might be able to really help people, instead of just inspiring them. So many people have helped me, I would really like to help others.
"I've seen a lot of my best friends die. I would like people to know it is OK to ask for help."
See the trailer for "Street Vets": http://www.igfilms.com/