Rex Robinette was eleven years old when his sister Laura was born in 1963. “We shared a special relationship,” Laura says, “because my mom allowed him to pick my name.”

The eldest of the family, Rex was a model older brother to Laura and their brother Gary. Rex took Laura to the zoo and the Cleveland Orchestra. “I have no negative memories of him. He was a positive, happy force,” Laura says.


One family photo shows him, a handsome, clean-cut teenager, with his hands protectively on Laura’s shoulders. In another, he stands proudly in his army uniform on the staircase of the family home in Cleveland, OH. On the advice of his father, a veteran himself, Rex joined the army before being drafted in the hopes of getting a better assignment. In 1971, he left Cleveland and his little sister for Vietnam. He was 18 years old.

For Rex and Laura, nothing was ever the same again.


During his leaves over the years, Rex described being yelled at and spit at by protesters or people walking by. He told the family that in training at Ft. Bragg, officers told soldiers that if anyone threw a baby at them, not to catch it because the baby could be tied with explosives. By the time he came back from the service in ‘74, Laura remembers him being glad to be home – at the time, he still seemed like the Rex she remembers.

But soon, he started sleeping a lot, growing his hair long. Slowly, Rex started to change.

Then one day, three years after returning home from Vietnam, Rex disappeared.


Through family networks, Laura’s parents discovered that Rex and his girlfriend had left for California. They were living in their car and selling blood to get by. Rex’s mother asked a friend to pass a message on: Call home. We love you. We’re not angry. We just want to know you’re ok.

But Rex never called.


For nearly forty years, the family only heard rumors about Rex’s whereabouts. Then, last December, Laura visited the graves of her parents with her grown son, Drew.

Drew can remember the day clearly. He was visiting family in Ohio for Christmas. Standing in the cold at his grandparents’ graves, Drew was overwhelmed with curiosity about his unknown uncle Rex. While Rex had left the family before Drew was born, he had grown up with stories about his mother’s beloved big brother. Drew felt that people don’t just fall off the face of the earth – something must have happened to him. In that moment, in the northeast Ohio cold, he decided to find Rex.


Drew didn’t have any information besides his uncle’s full name, but he started googling. By early February, he had found 16 or more phone numbers associated with Rex’s name and several addresses. Drew called every apartment building and followed a variety of leads. But he still hadn’t broached the subject of Rex with his mom. Finally, out of options, he asked Laura for Rex’s social security number and date of birth. He told his mom he would either find Rex or hire an investigator.

With the new information, Drew found Rex’s military record. He had earned a parachute badge and an expert infantryman badge. The record also showed that Rex had gone AWOL and was granted a general discharge – indicating that there was something that prevented Rex from performing his duties adequately. Drew suspects that he was told his unit was going to deploy, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Drew says, “It’s almost funny to describe my search for him because I searched everywhere…I got frustrated to the point of tears.” He says that finding his uncle became an almost obsessive pursuit. “I felt like I needed to find him.”

Through the summer, Drew continued to make progress and hired a private investigator to help complete the search. He and Laura grew more hopeful of finding Rex.


On August 2nd, the report from the investigator arrived by email. Throughout the last six months, all the evidence indicated that Rex was still alive. But that day, the investigator’s report revealed that Rex had passed away that June – while Drew was actively searching for him.

Drew was devastated. Even though he knew it was unlikely, Drew had been envisioning some level of closure for the family.


Drew broke the news to his mom the next Sunday. She took it hard, and the glimmer of hope that she’d held on to for years was lost. But Laura knew that she could still bring Rex home, and possibly find out something about his life from his belongings. That day, they began planning to fly out to CA.


Robin Phoenix knew Rex well during his time here. He was served by several members of our case management team and was popular around COTS’ campus.

“He had a wicked sense of humor, a kindness buried deep within,” says Robin,
“and his smile was absolutely contagious… Even though his heart at times was broken, he was so stoic, he was literally liked by all residents and guests. Everyone knew Rex and was drawn to him for one good reason or another.”

Robin describes him as deeply wounded by his experience as a sniper in the service, with severe PTSD that left him with delusions and paranoia. “He cared about keeping our shelter clean and did without anyone asking him to do so,” says Robin. “The difficulty was his refusing to get the support he needed to process the horrors he faced during his time in the service.”

After a long shelter stay, Rex was finally able to move into Veterans housing at Benton Village thanks to his case management team at COTS. Once he was housed, Sarah Vetter, COTS’ Supportive Housing Staff Member, still checked in with him and helped him remain housed. “We worked on a lot of things,” Sarah says, “but mainly getting glasses, grocery shopping, picking up medications…and assisting him in understanding his cell phone. I took him to pay his rent every month as well.”

Despite his housing success, Rex continued to isolate himself when he was sad or feeling unwell. “I learned that if I brought my dog, Sugar, he would come out regardless,” says Sarah. “He loved her more than anything. He liked to take her to the dog park with me on the way back from grocery shopping. He would also get McDonald’s and of course, share it with her.”


Drew and Laura were able to fly out to Sonoma County and visit both COTS and Benton Village. They were able to speak with those who knew him in his final years and shared stories about Rex’s past that helped our staff understand him better, too.

In Rex’s apartment, Laura found his discharge papers among his possessions which helped Laura to understand what her brother had gone through during Vietnam. His after-visit summaries showed Rex suffered from delusions and paranoid psychosis – a diagnosis that was painful for Laura to read but showed her that he was no longer the young man she had known growing up. Drew and Laura also found plenty of books, and Laura reminisced about how Rex had always been a reader. During his teenage years, she said, “If he wasn’t at school, he was at the library.”

When Laura cleared out his closet, she sat among his belongings to try and feel his presence. Then she hugged his clothes to say goodbye.

During their visit, Laura was able to sign for Rex’s cremated remains. “I was able to allow him to leave the coroner’s office with dignity.”

During their childhoods, Laura and Rex shared memories together at a family property in West Virginia by the river. Laura and Drew spread his ashes there in October of this year, and the family hopes Rex is now at peace in a place he once called home.

With their long search now over, Drew and Laura expressed gratitude for people like Sarah, Robin, and Gaby Baum of Benton Village who were kind to Rex during the last three years of his life. Most of all, Drew hopes that anyone else reading this who might be looking for a lost family member takes this away: “You can find them. It’s possible.”