Ron Sorkness started drinking as a pastime in 1982 while serving as a diesel mechanic in the military. Now he can’t stop.
Drinking Culture in the Military
Sorkness’ began drinking as a diesel mechanic and recovery sergeant in the military. During his service in the Gulf War, drinking was common among service members, and not drinking would lead to being stereotyped.
“I guess in the service…[drinking’s probably] a little excessive. It’s acceptable because everyone else did it. You were an outcast if you didn’t drink in the service, you know,” Sorkness said.
Sorkness also drank more in response to the trauma he experienced while serving in Iraq, and is still haunted by the memory of the day he shot an eight-year-old.
“It made me, it made me drink a lot. And one of the reasons I, I have [struggled] with alcoholism,” he said. “I have problems with alcohol and drinking won’t make it go away. And things happen over there and I know, I know, that wasn’t my fault. I was just doing my job but it still doesn’t make it better.”
Reflecting on his own lack of direction upon his honorable discharge in 1993, Sorkness believes there’s a need for better case managers when people exit the service. “Well in the military they, you know, they teach you how to drink, how to fight. But they don’t teach you how to quit drinking you know,” Sorkness said. “I was actually trying to kill myself, you know, with drinking”
“I was actually trying to kill myself, you know, with drinking”
Public Affairs Officer for Veterans Affairs Randal Noller shared that more recent data from a survey (pdf) conducted by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) “indicates that all adults in the U.S. age 26 or older have a rate of past 12-month alcohol use disorder* of 5.1%, and Veterans in that age group have essentially an identical rate of 5.0%,” said Randal Noller, a Public Affairs Officer for Veterans Affairs.
Post Military Life
After his discharge from the military, Sorkness married and worked as a truck driver and mobile welder. The wages from his two jobs allowed him to buy even more alcohol. Nonetheless, he didn’t believe he had an alcohol use disorder until he lost his marriage and house during the 2008 financial crisis. He initially blamed his divorce on the economy, but now understands drinking caused it.
“Because that’s, cause that’s the only thing I, you know, now I have better knowledge, but that’s the only thing I really knew how to do when things got bad is picking up bottles you know,” Sorkness said.
In 2008, the year of his divorce, Sorkness was charged with a DUI following an altercation with another driver. It was his second DUI in 30 years. He was charged with a third DUI in 2020.
Volunteering at the Auburn Food Bank
Prior to his third DUI in 2020, Sorkness was homeless and sleeping in his car. His drinking continued, “every day of the week. I, I was actually trying to kill myself you know with drinking,” Sorkness said. “I got tired of losing everything and trying to build [my] life back up again you know. Just, I kinda, I kinda didn’t really care.”
While King County’s homeless veteran population has decreased since 2017, homeless veterans still made up 7% of the homeless population in 2020, according to the Seattle/King County Point-in-Time Count of Individuals Experiencing Homelessness.(pdf)
Sorkness’ third DUI forced him to temporarily quit drinking when he was sentenced to nine months at Kent City Corrections Facility. Sorkness said his jail sentence was terrible. A lack of privacy and fear of violence by other inmates caused his high blood pressure to increase in jail.
Relief came when Sorkness found out he qualified for work time credit through the jail system. Work time credit can reduce inmates’ sentence with volunteer work at local nonprofits. Sorkness, along with other inmates, began volunteering at the Auburn Food Bank. Volunteering reduced his sentence from nine months to four.
Volunteers helped with any tasks that needed to be done and some inmates were given the chance to train other volunteers. Auburn Food Bank Executive Director Debbie Christian also provides letters of recommendation for the inmates once they enter the workforce following their sentence.
Sorkness said volunteering motivated him to work harder on improving his life. “So it was a, it was a great experience because I was being rewarded by praising, you know they were praising me. You know, so it made me work harder because, because of the praise.”
Leticia Brito, a food service coordinator, and Sorkness’ supervisor said he was a wonderful volunteer. “He was really motivated [and had] great leadership skills. A self-starter, he was always responsible if he wasn’t going to come in, he would always call me [to] let me know.”
Christian said the trust inmates receive from volunteering increases self-esteem. “I think the biggest thing I’ve seen all along is the self-confidence that they build back up in themselves, the self-esteem that came back,” Christian said. “And now they are able to walk with their head high instead of always down.”
She also said the food bank’s policy of keeping the inmates’ sentences anonymous also increased self-esteem. “The next guy standing next to them could be a Boeing employee giving time, and he doesn’t know he’s standing next to someone who’s spending his nights in jail,” Christian said.
Transitioning Out of Homelessness
Sorkness’ car was impounded after his DUI, so he began living on the streets again once he completed his jail sentence. After being sober for five months in jail, his immediate goal upon release was drinking.
He also began looking for work and started volunteering at the food bank again. “I thought well maybe I could drink less but I could also, you know, work at the food bank and you know, volunteer there and have- get some kind of idea of what to do with my life you know,” Sorkness said.
Soon Sorkness began a paid position as a security guard, after a supervisor from the food bank recommended him for the job. Sorkness also stopped sleeping outdoors after being introduced to the Auburn Food Bank’s resource center and night shelter. The Auburn Food Bank provides 24-hour services through Ray of Hope Day Resource Center, open from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Sundown Overnight Shelter, open from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Additionally, the food bank also partners with organizations that visit the resource center to provide assistance to those needing help with things such as obtaining healthcare, food or VA benefits, or a license or state identification.
Meanwhile, Sorkness continued drinking after work. One night while intoxicated, Sorkness had a verbal altercation with a shelter manager, which led to being banned from the resource center and night shelter.
After his ban, Sorkness started working more hours to stay dry during the day. At night, he wore waterproof pants and slept outdoors under an umbrella. During that time, he also apologized to the manager he got in a verbal altercation with.
Where he is now
Currently, Sorkness has a furnished apartment and a new job at Alaskan Copper & Brass Co. in Kent. Initially, he never thought that was possible.
“Because I’m- because people always stereotype you and say you’re a homeless guy with a backpack, you’re no- you’re no good you know. But I always say well I’m working two jobs, I’m trying you know. But then I never really did more than just having two jobs because I’m thinking, well everyone’s saying I’m worthless you know,” Sorkness said.
After being encouraged to try getting an apartment, Sorkness realized he was more than just his addiction to alcohol. Coordinators at Orion Industries, Veterans Affairs representatives, and Auburn city employees helped him realize he wasn’t worthless like people had said. Each had ideas of how Sorkness could overcome homelessness, which in turn inspired him to start helping himself.
“You know, I’ve always [taken] care of my soldiers or other people, not myself and finally, you know I got into a situation you know. I’ve been banned from the food bank, the shelters, and now I got, I gotta do something you know,” Sorkness said.
Though assigned to the food bank through the jail, Sorkness credits Christian for helping him overcome homelessness. “But all, all of that happened because of Debbie, Debbie’s syste
m you know,” Sorkness said.
Christian said she’s impressed with Sorkness, and seeing him succeed makes her want to help more people like Sorkness improve. “Ron was just one of those guys that was determined not to stay in the lifestyle that he was in,” she said. “And he worked two jobs, sometimes three jobs to keep busy and to keep out of the shelter. He’d come in just enough to sleep and then get up and go to work again the next day.”
While Sorkness isn’t sober, he hopes to be in the future if he continues getting support from the resources available to him. He’s cut back drinking from every day to the weekends when he’s not working.
In the future, he hopes to volunteer again at the Auburn Food Bank because he believes everyone is worth helping, even himself.
“And [I] wanted to show someone, show people that I am worth [it]. Everyone that’s out there on the street, you know. Down, deep down they’re, they’re- just because they have a backpack on doesn’t mean that they’re not worth saving you know, [that] they’re not, worth it. You know, everyone is worth, is worth, you know it’s life you know. And so I just wanted to show that I’m, I’m worth it you know,” Sorkness said.
*DSM–5 integrates the two DSM–IV disorders, alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, into a single disorder called alcohol use disorder (AUD) with mild, moderate, and severe sub-classifications.
To write this story, the Auburn Examiner interviewed Ron Sorkness, Debbie Christian, and Leticia Brito, and consulted with United States Department of Veterans Affairs Public Relations Officer Randal Noller. The Auburn Examiner also referenced and reviewed studies and information from the King County website, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.