MERRILLVILLE – “This is it,” Brian Cody thought as he sat hopeless on his brother’s basement sofa.
“I thought my life was over.”
The U.S. Marine Corps veteran had struggled with homelessness. He jumped from couch to couch and even found himself living out of boxes and suitcases on occasion. He was constantly batting debilitating medical and mental health issues and depended on drugs and alcohol to cope with it all.
Cody served in the 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division from 1979 to 1982. He never saw combat.
“I wasn’t an exemplary marine. I wasn’t a big hero. I did a good job but got out with an honorable discharge,” Cody said.
He was an addict before joining the Marine Corps. He thought the military would be his saving grace and help push him through “the screwed up things” he endured in the past, but it didn’t. Things only got worse after leaving the Marines.
At 45 years old, Cody said he was “troubled” and needed change – a healthy change to turn his life around.
"I called the VA, talked to a social worker and said, 'Look, I have got to do something because I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to be more screwed up than I already am. I need help.'"
Cody gets emotional looking back at his journey. More than 10 years after hitting his lowest point, the now 57-year-old Gary man is a successful entrepreneur, volunteer and mentor to others who have served.
Cody is the co-owner of Veterans Café and Grill in Merrillville, a small restaurant known best for its Southern-style food, patriotic décor and big commitment to veterans.
With the motto, “Helping heroes with a hand up, not a handout,” the café not only provides jobs to local veterans, but also donates a portion of its earnings to Veterans Life Changing Services, a nonprofit transitional housing center in Gary — the same facility that took in Cody.
“I’ve been homeless all over this country. Almost everywhere I went, they would hand me a sandwich or clothes. That was it. Sorry, but a hand up is more than just a handout,” Cody said. “Giving a hand up and helping provides some direction and hope.”
The restaurant, which opened in 2013, spun out of Veterans Life Changing Services, founded by co-owner Bessie Hitchcock.
The transitional house, at 501 W. Ridge Road, offers housing to homeless veterans. The facility features private bedrooms, a game room and library, an open community room, commercial kitchen and office spaces for Veteran Affairs staff to provide social services.
The facility currently houses 13 veterans.
“When I got in, I built a big relationship with Miss Bessie and her husband. She listened to me and heard everything I had to say. She helped me overcome and push through my PTSD. She just kept telling me that it’s going to be OK,” Cody said through tears. “I thought my life was over and she just kept supporting me. She always encouraged me.”
With a love for food and cooking, the two started catering events together, which Cody said helped build his confidence and interest in becoming an entrepreneur. One of their biggest events included catering thousands at a local AMC Theatre for the premiere of “Tyler Perry's Good Deeds.”
“You want to give the veterans that have no hope, hope. Show them what they can actually do for themselves. Make them entrepreneurs and he’s the prime example,” Hitchcock said, sitting across from Cody in their restaurant.
Before opening Veterans Life Changing Services in 2009 with her husband, a Vietnam veteran, Hitchcock said she didn’t realize the number of veterans struggling with homelessness and unemployment. Working with the veterans at the facility opened her eyes and led to the idea of opening Veterans Café and Grill with Cody as her business partner.
As of January 2017, Indiana had more than 5,400 people experiencing homelessness — 615 were military veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“I didn’t believe there was such a thing as homeless veterans and that this was such a problem. I saw this as an opportunity to show them that they matter,” Hitchcock said. “The whole purpose of opening the café is for them to know that they have opportunities. We are here.”
With Hitchcock staying busy with the restaurant and catering, Veterans Life Changing Services is now under new management.
Lorese Wesley, executive director, said the facility can house up to 31 veterans ranging in age, gender and military service.
Wesley said the organization, which receives no government funding and relies solely on donations, “goes running for veterans” as soon as they enter the transitional house. The staff helps veterans work with other local agencies, apply for benefits, find employment and permanent housing and even reconnect with distant family.
Veterans Life Changing Services is in need of donations and funding to continue to supply “exceptional service,” Wesley said.
“One thing so challenging is the ability to obtain funding. The product that we have is second to none,” Wesley said. “We operate completely on donations. We have been holding it together. Closing our doors is not an option. The only option we have is to continue to provide services to our veterans.”
Currently, staff is working to remodel the female dorm. The facility is accepting donations for a new sofa, chairs, artwork, twin mattresses, bed linen and rugs. Those wishing to donate can call the office at 219-455-6689.
“Some of them come in with just the clothes on their back, holes in their shoes with no support. Absolutely nothing. When they leave and find a home and job, it’s completely different,” Wesley said. “We have plenty of success stories.”
The turning point
Even though Cody moved out of the facility three years ago, he finds himself frequently visiting and spending time with the other veterans in the temporary housing facility.
His favorite place in the house is the kitchen, the room where Cody said “he found himself.”
Having previously gone to culinary school, Cody had always loved cooking and often found himself spending hours every day, preparing meals for the staff and his roommates at Veterans Life Changing Services.
“This helped me to get out of myself. I had a lot of problems when I got here. I was hopeless and didn’t think I would ever be able to work again,” Cody said standing in the middle of the room surrounded by memories. “They gave me the freedom to work in here and I ran with it. I was centered again. It was a miracle.
“Cooking has always been a fall back. I’m not a Gordon Ramsay, but I’m a damn good cook.”
Veterans Café and Grill customers would agree as the breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner are prepared fresh daily by Cody and Hitchcock.
All meals for veterans are discounted.
The café, at 7805 Taft St., is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Once business picks up and Veterans Café and Grill is fully staffed, hours will be extended, Hitchcock said.
“We did this to help veterans and to raise awareness. (Hitchcock) helped me to become an entrepreneur. I could hardly walk when this all started, but she helped me to go into the business,” Cody said. “We want to give those opportunities to others. Our veterans have done their time and deserve it.”