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PopsDecorated veteran freezes to death in Northwest cold snap
Story Published: Dec 23, 2008 at 5:20 PM PST
Story Updated: Dec 23, 2008 at 5:20 PM PST
By JACK MORAN, The (Eugene) Register-Guard
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - Thomas Egan was a scholar and a decorated soldier. He was also a homeless alcoholic whose life ended last week when he froze to death in Eugene during an unusually long and harsh cold snap.
His body was found covered in snow near the corner of West First Avenue and Blair Boulevard, a bottle of liquor by his side.
News of the demise of the longtime Eugene resident troubled many local veterans - especially those who knew that with some effort and some help, the man they called Major Egan could have had a roof over his head.
"The whole National Guard community is taking this very hard," said Bud Dickey, a vocational rehabilitation coordinator with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' community reintegration service center in Eugene.
"It's very disturbing for all of us, because Major Egan was retired and could have been drawing his (veterans') benefits," Dickey said. "He had options that he did not access."
Egan collected monthly Social Security checks, but the amount was a pittance compared to the payments he was entitled to as a retired military veteran.
When he turned 60 in July, Egan became eligible to receive $909 each month in National Guard retirement income, Dickey said.
Egan also could have applied for a separate pension check based on unemployability.
"That would have gotten him an apartment if he wanted one," said Jay Rea, a Springfield resident who served under Egan in the National Guard in the late 1980s.
"He wasn't like most other officers," Rea said of Egan. "He was very personable and wasn't afraid to work with the enlisted men, even when he didn't have to."
"I shed a tear when I heard he died," Rea said. "It breaks my heart because he was the friendliest guy, and so smart."
A New York native, Egan joined the Army in 1971 after graduating from Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn., with a bachelor's degree in history.
He was stationed at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea for two years, and was reassigned to the Oregon Army National Guard in 1977.
Egan earned his master's degree from the University of Oregon in 1983, and ultimately attained the rank of major with the National Guard.
He retired honorably in 1991, following a 20-year military career during which he was awarded several service medals and ribbons.
It's unclear when Egan became addicted to alcohol and when he became homeless.
Dickey said Egan's desire to drink made him ineligible for VA housing programs that require sober living.
Egan had declined to enroll in substance abuse treatment programs offered through the veterans agency, Dickey said.
According to those who knew him, Egan worked sporadically. He did some landscaping, and most years helped deliver telephone books.
Sometimes, he found an apartment to stay in for a while. At other times, he lived on the streets.
In August, Egan spent two weeks at the Eugene Mission - which is less than one block from the spot where a passer-by discovered his body last week.
Mission officials said Egan never caused any trouble there, and could have stayed any time.
Dickey said Egan has no relatives in Oregon, and tracking down members of his extended family on the East Coast has been challenging.
Dickey, who served five years with Egan in the National Guard, is helping to direct an effort to have Egan interred at the Roseburg National Cemetery.
"He will be buried as a veteran in a veterans' cemetery," Dickey said. "He was a good soldier, and we're going to get him the burial he's due."