Homeless Veterans

Hat tip to Majikthise and Steve Gilliard for bringing my attention to this article about vets from the Iraqi war becoming homeless after leaving the military. I'll quote just a little bit of the story from one returning Iraqi vet:

A gunner's mate for 16 years, Arellano said he adjusted after serving in the first Gulf War. But after returning from Iraq, depression drove him to leave his job at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He got divorced.

He said that after being quickly pushed out of the military, he could not get help from the VA because of long delays.

"I felt, as well as others (that the military said) 'We can't take care of you on active duty.' We had to sign an agreement that we would follow up with the VA," said Arellano.

"When we got there, the VA was totally full. They said, 'We'll call you.' But I developed depression."

He left his job and wandered for three months, sometimes living in his truck.

Nearly 300,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and almost half served during the Vietnam era, according to the Homeless Veterans coalition, a consortium of community-based homeless-veteran service providers. While some experts have questioned the degree to which mental trauma from combat causes homelessness, a large number of veterans live with the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, according to the coalition.

Some homeless-veteran advocates fear that similar combat experiences in Vietnam and Iraq mean that these first few homeless veterans from Iraq are the crest of a wave.

"This is what happened with the Vietnam vets. I went to Vietnam," said John Keaveney, chief operating officer of New Directions, a shelter and drug-and-alcohol treatment program for veterans in Los Angeles. That city has an estimated 27,000 homeless veterans, the largest such population in the nation. "It is like watching history being repeated," Keaveney said.

Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that as of last July, nearly 28,000 veterans from Iraq sought health care from the VA. One out of every five was diagnosed with a mental disorder, according to the VA. An Army study in the New England Journal of Medicine in July showed that 17 percent of service members returning from Iraq met screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety disorder or PTSD.

I don't think I've ever told this story here, but a few years ago I had an experience that really brought me face to face with this. Back when I did comedy, I helped organize a few benefit shows for homeless shelters and battered women's shelters and the like, but that was from a distance. This brought it face to face. I was living in Lansing and was coming out of a laundromat when this man came up to me by my car saying he was starving and asking for money. I don't know why I did this, I'd never done it before in such situations, but I said, "I'm sorry, I won't give you money, but if you'll let me I'll buy you dinner somewhere." He said, "Thank you, brother", and I drove him down the road to an unusual little casual steakhouse. It was the middle of the afternoon and the place was empty.

He went into the bathroom and cleaned himself up a little bit and we ordered meals. And he began talking. He was a Vietnam vet and he'd been homeless for most of his life after returning. There were periods during that time when he stayed with relatives, but most of it he was homeless. We sat there for what must have been 2 hours, with him talking about Vietnam and what it did to him. About how he wakes up some nights haunted by his memories. He told me about all the friends he watched die, and he said sometimes he wishes he had died with them. He told me of the chronic headaches he had since he came back home and how the doctors at the VA could never figure out why, so he finally gave up.

I asked him if he would take help if it was offered, help to get off the streets. He said maybe, it depends on what the strings are on it. He said he didn't do drugs, and I believed him, but that he drank when he could because it helped keep him warm and helped numb the pain. He said he went in and out of the shelters and soup kitchens at times. I wanted to take him to an organization I had done a benefit for 10 years or so before that, a group that had done some really good work with helping the homeless become self-supporting; when we got there, I found out they were no longer in existence.

See, this is one of those easy problems to abstract, to view as so distant from us that we read about it in the paper and it scarcely registers in our minds. But these are real people, and they need our help. I urge you all to give some money to U.S. Vets Inc, or to your local homeless shelter. Volunteer your time to serve food, or just to sit and talk with them. All of the "Support our Troops" magnetic decals or stickers on your car aren't gonna do a damn thing for those men coming back from the war. A little compassion, time and money could do a lot of good. So could a little public outrage that the Defense Department isn't doing this work themselves. Let's not let this war result in the same tragedy as the last one.

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What makes this story even more frustrating is the fact that this has been happening for hundreds (probably thousands) of years. I was just reading Kipling's "The Last of the Light Brigade," which ends:

O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made--"
And we leave to the streets and the workhouses the charge of the Light Brigade!