Face Value: Veteran’s viral makeover solves everything except problems

Britt Kidder

Jim Wolf gained national attention last week for his part in the apparent transformation of a homeless veteran. The now-famous video shows an untidy man being clipped, shaved, colored, and re-clothed; transformed for success in less than three minutes.

The video claims that since filming, the veteran “has taken control of his life. He is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.”

Released just in time for Veteran’s Day, the video went definitively viral and delivered considerable publicity to the video’s maker, Rob Bliss (who also appears in the video) and considerable donations (more than $50,000) to the charity who organized the event, Degage Ministries. But, like any Charles Dickens novel, it’s not all fuzzy good feelings; less than a month after the video was shot Jim Wolf was arrested, on two occasions, and charged with disorderly conduct, trespassing, and creating a disturbance . Who is Jim? He’s the veteran, and his latest arrest acknowledges the depth of addiction, veteran re-adjustment, and homelessness: it can’t be fixed in three minutes.

Makeup won’t solve body dysmorphia, pink merchandise won’t cure breast cancer, and a new suit won’t make Jim sober/happy/employed. But it will give a lot of journalists the angle their looking for.

“Homeless veteran’s reaction after makeover will make you cry”

–Headline from KBOI2

“The following video captures just how quickly a homeless vet with an admitted alcohol problem can be whipped into shape…”

–Business Insider’s Geoffrey Ingersoll.

” U.S. Army Veteran Jim Wolf has struggled with alcoholism, poverty, and homelessness for decades. Then a filmmaker and a ministry group helped clean him up and gave him a makeover.”

Brian Balthazar, Pop Goes the Week.

“Jim is someone people would have ignored. Now he looks like someone on cover of GQ.”

Rob Bliss, speaking to ABC News

Mission accomplished? The reality has not been publicized, the myth has. While Rob Bliss and Degage Ministries enjoyed a lot of positive publicity for their PR stunt the facts do not support the claim that Jim was “transformed” whatsoever,  reducing the video to something as trivial as What Not to Wear or as harmful as The Swan. (Disclaimer: I enjoy watching What Not To Wear.) No one is saying Degage Ministries hasn’t tried to help Jim (they provide aid to childless men and women), but the problem of homeless vets is complicated and can’t be brushed over  to make a profitable poster boy out of Jim. The result is harm, not help.

Erin Fenner, founder of UI Women’s Center blog, writes:

“In what way is this helping the individuals in question? Sure, through a privileged lens it could look like they are validating his humanity and giving him some extra dignity. But, it also is just molding him into an image that privileged folks can feel comfortable looking at. Sure, with a nice suit and cover up hiding the bags under his eyes, he is more likely to get a job TODAY, but only because we live in a shallow culture. In the cutline we read that he’s struggled with alcoholism and poverty for years. How does this appeal to middle-class heart-warming bullshit really fix that? I’m so pissed off at our culture: one that strokes itself so tenderly for executing the most shallow of social justice actions…It makes me sick how willingly ignorant we are to the issue of poverty.

Homelessness is a problem that runs deep and wide. It’s complicated by mental illness, drug abuse, physical abuse (perceived or inflicted), social stigma, economic factors and a legal system that is often unkind. Homeless veterans present another side to this. Wood TV8 reported that Michigan has one of the worst problems of veterans not accessing the benefits and services they are entitled to, in part because of a perceived expectation to be ‘tough.’ Eighty percent of Michigan’s veterans are not getting that help, so problems like joblessness and PTSD go unresolved and contribute to homelessness. You can’t treat a symptom of homelessness (Jim’s appearance) and claim anything’s been cured, it’s just been covered up. Will it inspire him to change, as the ministry claims? That’s a difficult road.

From what I could find, Wood TV8 was the only news source to actually acknowledge that these problems relate to Jim Wolf’s story; that his recovery is not a three-minute story. Wood TV8 is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, also home to Jim Wolf, Rob Bliss and Degage Ministries. Weirdly, Rob Bliss lists Wood TV8 as his employer from December 2009 until October 2011 but Wood TV8 does not disclose this in their coverage. They raised some excellent points, though, and are the only news site to report Wolf’s story as a series of stories describing his struggles with recovery. Virtually every other news organization used him as a feel-good, quick-fix ratings tool for Veteran’s Day themes. Rob Bliss is a marketing specialist, after all. It’s his job to create something people want.

“It’s just been incredible to see the reaction people have had. It’s been very moving,” Bliss said in an interview via Skype from Chicago, where he’s working on another project. “Also we’re up to 12 million in YouTube hits.”

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