FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Lisa Groves has taken a handful of bullets from a veteran who was considering suicide. She has helped dispose of pills for a veteran who had lost all hope. She has clamped her hand over the freshly slit wrists of a veteran who was trying to take his own life.
Driving and living in a 2007 Jeep Compass slathered in pro-veteran messages, Groves has crossed the country once to help ailing veterans and raise awareness of their struggles. Now she’s doing it again.
“We’ve really got a beautiful country,” the 50-year-old said, “but we don’t take care of our veterans.”
Groves rolled into Fayetteville on Monday in the first month of her second nationwide journey with no plan other than to find some vets to help.
“Nobody asked me to do this,” she said. “I’m dedicating my time and doing the best I can.”
Groves’ Jeep is stuffed full of clothes, towels, shoes, bottled water, canned food, soap and toothbrushes.
She visits shelters and nursing homes, asking for veterans who don’t receive visitors.
She looks under bridges and in dark corners for veterans who have drifted out of the system. She uses a portable copier to sign them up for benefits, gives them food and clothing, tries to help them find shelter.
Sometimes she reads to them from her tattered copy of “14,000 Things To Be Happy About.”
Sometimes, just giving them hope is enough.
She’s been called crazy, and worse.
“I want the veterans to know they have someone who will come to wherever they’re at to help them,” she said. “I was just doing it from my heart.”
She carries a teddy bear that’s been clutched by lonely men, women and children as they shared their stories.
“This bear has had a lot of tears on it,” Groves said. “This is a bear of comfort.”
A disabled veteran herself, Groves said she was raped during her eight years in the Army but never reported it.
After her discharge in 1992, she and her four children spent several years moving between homeless shelters in six states, fleeing an abusive husband.
Eventually returning to her native West Virginia, Groves opened a hot dog stand that ultimately funded her passion — helping other veterans and their families, especially the homeless, the disabled.
Disenchanted with the support in her home state, Groves set out to see how veterans were treated elsewhere.
In 2011, she drove to 48 states between Sept. 2 and Christmas Eve.
“I found a lot of sadness,” she said. “I cried every day.”
Most nights she curled up and slept in her back seat, in frozen New England and the deserts of the west.
“I like struggle,” she said. “You learn from your struggles.”
People helped. The messages plastered on her car drew veterans and their advocates — and offers of support. People bought her gas, gave her food and money to keep going.
“America took care of me last time,” she said. “There are some good people out there.”
When she got home from that trip, Groves found she had been mailed the ashes of Arthur Collins, a sick veteran she had picked up on a California roadside and taken to the hospital.
“It shook me,” she said.
Collins told Groves he had always wanted to visit the North Pole.
So on this 49-state trip, she also will visit Alaska, so she can scatter his ashes as far north as possible.
“I thought, I have got to do more,” she said.
This trip is open ended. Groves said it might take a year.
“I’m going to stay out here as long as I’m needed,” she said.
The National Homeless Organization estimates that more than 300,000 veterans are living on the streets on any given night.
“You’ve got people dying by themselves,” Groves said. “It’s a comfort to them to know they’re not by themselves.”
When Groves arrived at Fort Bragg on Monday, horns were soon blowing in response to a “Honk” message on her Jeep.
She found someone to follow and ended up at the Fisher House, a nonprofit organization that houses families with relatives being treated at Womack Army Medical Center.
She spoke to the people staying there, and the staff offered up some supplies she could distribute on her travels.
“Believe it or not, we gave her stuffing,” said Paula Gallero, executive director of the Fisher House. “She said, ‘You know, you can make a whole meal of stuffing.’ ”
Gallero said she found Groves and her mission remarkable.
“A lot of people frown on people like her, thinking she wanted something, but she didn’t,” Gallero said. “She came by here and made a few people smile.”
Groves also spread smiles at the Jubilee House, the shelter for homeless women veterans on Langdon Street where she spent Monday night.
“It’s empowering, seeing a woman veteran that’s overcome so much, giving back,” said shelter resident Victoria Lique. “Sometimes it’s those little things that give you the will to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.”
Groves planned to leave Fayetteville this afternoon to head to Salisbury, where she heard someone else needed her help. Then it’s Raleigh on Saturday for an American Legion conference before pushing on again to wherever’s next.
She has been invited overseas and hasn’t ruled that out.
“I’ve got my passport now,” she said, ” so you don’t know where I’m going to go.”
If you see her, honk your horn.