Winchester, Calif., – Phillip Jeleniewski, a U.S. Army veteran, served in Vietnam from 1966-1967. Assigned grave registration, Jeleniewski described it as “one of the worst jobs a person could have, working with the remains of fallen soldiers. I saw things I can’t even describe,” he says. Although he was awarded a Purple Heart for his service, Jeleniewski still believes that other soldiers deserved the medal more.
Following his military discharge, he returned home and began to work. “The drinking soon followed,” Jeleniewski says. “I would see awful images at night and I couldn’t sleep, so I drank to numb the pain.”
By 1982, his life unraveling, Jeleniewski entered a recovery program at a medical center for veterans in Chicago. “I was in the hospital for 30 days. I’d get tremors so bad I couldn’t hold my hand out,” he remembers.
While he was in the hospital undergoing treatment, he was given an arts and crafts kit from national nonprofit organization Help Hospitalized Veterans (HHV). “It was a three-mast sailing ship. I wanted to work on it right away, but my shaking from the alcohol withdrawal made it difficult,” Jeleniewski says.
“I took the kit with me when I left the hospital, but I remember thinking that I had never finished anything in my life. My self-esteem was about as low as it could be, and there were four taverns on every street corner in my neighborhood. I decided that if I was going to stay sober, I needed help. So every time I craved a drink, I went home and worked on that craft kit instead.”
Now, Jeleniewski credits that first kit with achieving and maintaining his sobriety. “It took me a year to finish it, but it played a huge role in saving my life. After I completed that first kit, my confidence and self-esteem soared. I asked myself what I wanted to build next, and I decided what I really wanted to do was to build a house for me and my wife. Because of the confidence I got from making that sailing ship, I discovered that I could do that – and more. I have remained sober ever since.”
Today, Jeleniewski works as a Service Officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and is also a regular volunteer at HHV’s Community Based Crafts Center in Berwyn, Ill.
“I spend a lot of my time going to rehabilitation programs, and I often share my story. I always bring that sailing ship craft kit with me and I tell the veterans, “Because of this craft kit, my ship came in and yours can, too!”