Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
If you’re going to stage a hunger strike, dress fashionablyvertical stripes accentuate a gaunt frame. Strike in mild weather; late spring might be nice. And above all, try not to eat.
Lemuel Bray has failed on all three counts, good intentions notwithstanding. The 54-year-old Vietnam vetwith his long white beard, hooded sweatshirt, and insulated brown cotton jumpsuitcould be mistaken for just another homeless guy. But while Bray does spend most nights on the street, he’s also a veterans’ activist, trying to prod the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) into studying mental illness more closely. Each day, Bray stations himself behind a yellow “Hunger Strike” banner near the Washington Post Building, hoping his lean look will evoke media sympathy and, ultimately, a front-page story. Trouble is, he keeps falling off the wagonor, more accurately, onto the chuck wagon.
Bray began striking in December; he distributes a descriptive pamphlet titled “HUNGER STRIKE…FROM DEC 24, 1995.” But the holiday season is a notoriously difficult time to starve oneself. “I’d been on it since the 24th, but I took a break on the first [of January] because people brought around a lot of food,” Bray sheepishly admitted on Jan. 4. After his New Year’s Day lapse, he determinedly got back to business.
Then the Blizzard of ’96 blew into town. Bray took cover and resumed snacking for a few more days. “In order to [properly conduct] a hunger strike, you have to stick to it longer than I have so far,” he now admits. “You have to get down to skin and bones, or you have to be a celebrity.”
“I shoulda been out here during the storm,” he says, adding that he’s envious of the “hardcore homeless” who stayed outdoors throughout the big snow. But he just couldn’t risk his health, and so postponed his fast until Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Day. Bray appears to have a strong self-preservation instinctnot an ideal quality in one threatening his own body. His pamphlet echoes this caution in its details of his hunger-strike “diet”: “The diet consists of less than 100 calories per day of low calorie, high fiber vegetables, grapefruit (helps control hunger pangs) and 4 oz. of low calorie meat every 7 to 10 days to prevent early death by heart attack. Calcium and vitamins are also taken.”
Such wishy-washy behavior has frustrated some of his benefactors. “The thing is, Mr. Bray is not on a legitimate hunger strike,” says Jim Wardle, who has worked on Bray’s case at the VA. “I think he goes on one for a few days and then he goes off of one….He said he was on a ‘controlled’ hunger strike. And I said, ‘excuse me, what do you mean by controlled?’ And he said he goes for three days and then takes nourishment.”
Others are a bit more understanding. “The hunger strike as he describes it is a controlled strikehe is walking the line between trying to express his feelings but at the same time doing what’s safe,” says Dr. Laurent Lehmann, VA’s associate director for psychiatry.
Bray’s aborted military career made his full-time activism possible. After a 1965-’67 tour of duty as a medic in Danang, he returned to the U.S. and continued serving in the Navy; his own mental hardships, which he says include depression, confusion, misplaced aggression, and a “20-point drop in IQ,” were caused by a 1969 accident at a stateside military base. Now he gets by on Social Security and veterans’ disability checks, which total about $20,000 annually. Bray arrived in D.C. last May, and predictably commenced to hang around at the Vietnam Memorial. Eventually he complained about his disability benefits to the VA, but his own well-being was not his only concern, as it turned out.
Bray met with VA representatives in September and October 1995 to discuss his benefits and those of another veteran, Henry Black Jr. Black was experiencing dizzy spells and suicidal episodes that doctors attributed to alcoholism; Black and Bray insisted that the behavior stemmed from a Vietnam combat injury and a bout with malaria around the same time. On Black’s behalf, Bray began urging the VA to screen ex-soldiers for head wounds in combination with something called “cerebral malaria.” He also pushed for a mortality study of vets who committed suicide. Bray believes that long-term mental illness among veterans, especially suicidal tendencies, can be linked to infection with malaria; he suspects that vets now receiving conventional drugs for mental problems could be getting the wrong kinds of treatment. If the vets in a VA study were to exhibit Black’s symptomsthat is, if Black’s alcoholism wasn’t entirely to blamehe could be entitled to better benefits.
Bray’s theories are not entirely off the wall. Research has shown that a knock on the headwhich Bray got in ’69can cause personality changes that resemble psychiatric disorders. And doctors investigating malaria, which afflicted soldiers in the Pacific theater during World War II and in Vietnam, have found that it may have longer-lasting consequences than had been thought. A February 1989 article in Practitioner claims that a group of 30 Vietnam veterans who suffered malaria and amnesia in the field later showed “poor memory function, treatment-resistant depression, and an impressive frequency of irritable and abusive behavior toward their families….Most of the patients studied had developed more neuropsychiatric problems 10 to 15 years following malaria than they had shown in the first few post-illness years.”
Still, reactions to Bray’s mission have been mixed. Vietnam Veterans of America did not respond to phone calls about Bray’s hunger strike. Dave Gorman, executive director of the Washington chapter of Disabled American Veterans, knows about ordinary malaria but has never heard of the cerebral variety. Others, like Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chief counsel Tom Harvey, express skepticism about Bray’s theories. Harvey knows of cerebral malaria but doesn’t consider it a precipitating factor in veteran suicides. “There is not a larger number of suicides among veterans…than there is in the population as a whole,” he maintains. “I would guess that veterans commit suicide for reasons fairly consistent with a random group.” Neither has he heard of any other vets lobbying for attention to this matter; Bray’s hunger strike, Harvey says, “seems like a sort of quixotic effort.” He cynically dismisses the vet’s windmill-tilting”the fact is that there are some people who make very weird life choices that you and I wouldn’t make”and suggests that monthly Social Security and disability payouts ought to be sufficient to keep Bray happy.
But Bray is not without boosters. “I personally found his activism refreshing and was glad that he came in to talk to us,” says VA’s Lehmann. “He certainly is a person who’s positively motivated for veterans.” Lehmann bemoans the recent layoffs, furloughs, and snowfall that have contributed to VA’s inability to meet Bray’s demands, yet holds out some hope for the vet’s case. “There’s obviously no budget now,” he says, “but it just so happens by the luck of the draw [Bray] talked to me. I have an interest in behavioral problems….Sure enough, a follow-up on Mr. Bray is my No. 4 item [of things to do right away].” Last fall, Lehmann continues, he spoke with Nils Varney, one of the doctors who compiled the Practitioner data. Varney has conducted further studies on his group of 30 veterans, and another article is in the works.
But Lehmann’s to-do list and Varney’s article probably won’t be completed soon enough to satisfy Bray. He plans to leave town by March 31, though Henry Black’s case is still pending. Bray has several other schemes to keep him busy until he departs. He’s regularly in touch with staffers at the Alzheimer’s Disease Alliance of Western Pennsylvania, who are sympathetic to his and other vets’ behavioral problems. He wants to start a nonprofit organization for veterans with brain injuries, preferably managed by someone “personally connected to suicide.” And he insistshold onto your hatsthat someone investigate the late White House counsel Vincent Foster’s medical record for evidence of head trauma and cerebral malaria.
Bray voices his notionsreasonable and questionable alikein a lucid fashion that belies his scruffy appearance. He remains hopeful that the Washington Post will respond to his vigil, and seems unconcerned that some vet organizations scoff at his on-again-off-again hunger strike. He’s even media-savvy enough to suggest that some lucky journalist could win an award by getting the scoop on cerebral malaria.
Yet there’s something wrong with this picture. If Bray really wants to start a nonprofit or be taken seriously as a lobbyist, he should quit his hunger strike entirelyand start dining on an expense account.CP