by Jason Tudor (originally published in Airman magazine in May 2002)
Ragnar Hauksson’s hands are cut, bruised and chaffed. His face is scarred; his paint-stained sweatshirt and jeans are torn. He stands outside the gymnasium he’s renovated and looks at it with pride. In a little more than two years, the 40-year-old has turned 5,000 square feet of dilapidated mess into a nearly working gym.
Three decades ago, when this structure was filled with airmen who watched Iceland’s skies, Ragnar found himself in a dead end. At 12, he left home to live on the streets. By 15, he smoked hash and popped amphetamines. Eventually, Iceland authorities threw him in prison for almost eight years for theft.
“I used to paint pictures. One of them described my trip to hell, disguised as a demon,” he recalled. “This was a real big problem for me.”
Just recently, he finished the gym.
Stories like this aren’t uncommon at Byrgid (pronounced BEAR-GID), which means “shelter” in Icelandic. The drug rehabilitation facility is home to more than 150 former drug users, alcoholics and others looking for something to help turn around their lives. The shelter is housed in the former home of the Air Force’s 932nd Air Control Squadron — vacated as part of the Air Force drawdown in 1997 — once called Rockville, or The Rock. The squadron has since moved six miles away to Naval Air Station Keflavik.
In 1999, Byrgid moved in. But that didn’t mean a smooth transition. Buildings were old and broken. There was money to be raised. And it still hasn’t become a permanent spot in Iceland’s social landscape.
Gudmundur Jonsson found Byrgid in much the same way Ragnar found it. Gudmundur was an alcoholic by age 26. But in 1990, he discovered a Christian calling. That led to the creation of Byrgid, which started in his rented house in 1996.
So many people showed up for help that he and his wife, Helga, bought another house in 1997. Twenty-five people live there. Another 12 still live in the first house.
“When we started out, we had $11. The Lord has blessed and multiplied each dollar every day,” Gudmundur said.
As the dollars from donations and grants grew, Gudmundur got word of the empty military site. “A friend in the government told me the site was available. He saw it and thought it would make a good deal for us,” Gudmundur said.
But the deal wasn’t iron clad. Gudmundur needed about $800,000. Eventually, Byrgid got enough start-up money to renovate the old radar site. But there was much more to be done.
The once top-secret facilities were on the verge of collapse. The site had been gutted of its equipment. Little of the bluesuit amenities had been left behind, according to 2nd Lt. William Gallian from the 932nd Air Control Squadron.
Gallian and others volunteered their time to help Byrgid come to life. The site was formerly remote duty for airmen. Although it was six miles from Keflavik, the site had its own base exchange, commissary, gym, theater and club.
Major repairs to those buildings, according to Gallian, were the top priority.
“Every window was broken,” he said, pointing around the compound. “Except for the buildings, nothing was left from the original site. There was a lot of work to be done.”
Even as work continued on the facilities, Gudmundur and others still needed to get their message of hope to Iceland’s homeless, troubled and less fortunate.
Ragnar’s story is one of success. Many others still linger in the hallways, counseling rooms and offices of Byrgid’s facility. They’re called from places like Denmark, England and Sweden to the small island nation in search of a way out of their addictions.
Friends in need
A handful of staff members — former drug users and alcoholics themselves — oversee the work. They help build the framework for a life free of drugs and alcohol. And build is the key. Gudmundur emphasized Byrgid is a long-term treatment facility. It usually takes in those people who failed to have success with shorter-term rehabilitation programs, like Ragnar.
He’d been through “15 to 20” rehabilitation programs when he met his wife, Martha, also living on the street. While they’d found a place to live, both were increasingly dependent on drugs.
“We were unable to quit by ourselves. We often felt the scary and threatening closeness of death,” he remembered.
Ragnar eventually bumped into Magnus. Magnus Einarsson had served two years in a correctional home by age 14. At 15, he was hired onto a ship, and his drinking really started.
“I had to have booze daily,” he said. At one point, Magnus said the only thing he could do was “stay drunk,” so he headed back to the freighter ship. Eventually, he was fired for being drunk too often.
In time, he wound up on fishing trawlers out of Reykjavik. By 19, a serious accident shattered three vertebrae near his neck. From there, he started popping amphetamines and living on the street. That led to petty theft. Eventually, he was thrown in prison for 12 years. At 48, he was released.
He and Ragnar were a perfect match.
“At the time I met him, he was a heavy drinker and a drug addict,” Ragnar said. “He was dying slowly. Then one day, Magnus all of a sudden went away.”
Somehow, Magnus had dragged himself to Byrgid. Ragnar found out where Magnus had gone. Thinking this was what he needed, he, his wife and his cat checked in. At the same time, he said he discovered God.
“God said, ‘Finally you talked to me you s– of a b—-,’ ” Ragnar said. “As soon as I got to Byrgid, I felt some unexplainable peace.”
A tough journey
Long-term treatment is something new to Iceland’s social structure. Not everyone, including the government, is convinced it’s the right thing to do. Gudmundur is.
“The concept is new. Most people get 30 to 90 days elsewhere. That’s too short,” he said. “Being sick like this is difficult for people. They need time and space. This place gives us that space.”
He said getting used to Byrgid is a slow process. “Little by little we support them.”
Gudmundur said forming Byrgid was a two-year plan. But it was a plan that couldn’t have happened without help. That help came from Reykjavik to Raufarhofn. It also came from the Air Force.
Many airmen like Gallian and Staff Sgt. James Badua volunteer time to get the shelter on its feet. The chapel staff also makes donations to Byrgid since it’s a Christian-based organization.
Badua, a civil engineering technician at Keflavik, has helped with a wealth of tasks, including painting and building the facility’s small radio station. Gallian said Badua and about 50 other people from the Air Force’s 85th Group at Keflavik make time for Byrgid.
“It’s a good cause a lot of folks put their backs into,” Gallian said. “A lot of folks remember the old radar facility, and it brings back a lot of memories. It’s the right thing for us to do.”
“We’ve put in a lot of work here,” Badua said. “It’s great to see it all coming together.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean Byrgid will stay at Rockville.
A final destination
Gudmundur said no one in government can guarantee funding for the site. He added that donations of the size needed to keep the facility going are running short. However, Iceland’s president visited Byrgid earlier this year, and, according to Gudmundur, people are talking about Byrgid’s good work. Still, it’s little consolation.
“If everybody is talking, what’s wrong? Why can’t we stay here?” he asked.
Will they be booted out into Iceland’s snowy streets?
“I don’t think we’re going to reach that point. We’ve been going for six years, and we’ve never had a permanent home. We think this is it,” he said. “There are a lot of departments and plenty of politics to work through. There are many questions, but few answers.”
Meanwhile, Gudmundur and his staff continue working toward their primary goal — lifting people from their sicknesses. Steinunn Marinosdottir, Byrgid’s office manager and one of its counselors, has watched many people work through the hard-knocks detox. It’s the same road she took some years before.
“We tell people that we care about them and that we love them. We tell them we can go through the difficult things with them. We tell them we can help,” she said. “But they have to fight for it.”
Gudmundur emphasized he isn’t trying to convert people to Christianity. It is, however, an integral part of the growth process patients make in Byrgid.
“Both the word of God and what we teach in rehab are equally important,” he said. “We think they’ll live a happy life if they follow the word of God. It will give them a happy life. But we’re not here to convert them. Just help them.”
Ragnar, whose rehabilitation led him to renovate the $200,000 gym, changed his life. Now he has a young child and doesn’t believe he’d be alive today without the shelter. He thanks God and the opportunities presented to him. He looked at his gnarled hands and then stared again at his gym.
“God gave me these hands,” he said, reflecting. “If someone hadn’t discovered what was deep inside me, what good I could do, I’d probably be dead.”