The New Homeless Vet

An old sad story is being revisited in the United States, that of the homeless vet. Young, angry and unable to cope with the world around them after war. The Vietnam War showed my generation a new war vet, this generation gets the Iraqi War Vet.

“People come back from war different,” Peter Mohan

There is no question that war changes a person. Having to watch death up close does emotional damage. Fearing that today may well be the day that you die everyday for long periods can trigger paranoia.

The U.S. has been in war for seven years starting with the bombing in Afghanistan and two years later Iraq.

Dealing with the mental scars of war isn’t new. During the Civil War boys came home addicted to morphine. They were called tramps, searching for a job often while war wounds hadn’t even mended.

The “Bonus Army” from WW1 demanded their benefits that had been promised them.

We didn’t witness those lost, they are long dead. We did and do witness the boys from ‘Nam. Lost, rejected, on emotional edge. Movies have been made about these souls that left their innocence behind on the killing fields.

The United States has a new group to add to the homeless vet, those returning from another war that has divided a country. There have been at least 1,500 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan identified by the government. The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 36,000 veterans were homeless for some time during 2006.

Those who work with homeless vets fear that the coming years will bring on a huge wave of lost souls wrapped in a blanket with no home as vets return to struggle with post-traumatic stress.

As the United States braces itself for this wave there is a resounding question being asked “How? Why?”

“I really wish I could answer that question,” says Anthony Belcher, an outreach supervisor at New Directions, which conducts monthly sweeps of Skid Row in Los Angeles, identifying homeless veterans and trying to help them get over addictions.

“It’s the same question I’ve been asking myself and everyone around me. I’m like, wait, wait, hold it, we did this before. I don’t know how our society can allow this to happen again.”

The how is easy even if it is a sad issue. Mental illness, money trouble and not being able to find a home within budget are the primary causes of homelessness when it concerns veterans of wars.

The Vietnam Vet also had the issue of drug abuse. That issue does not appear to be a concern with those returning from the Middle East. What does seem to be affecting those that back it home is the multiple deployments and abundance of roadside bombings is triggering stress disorders.

Stress disorders started appearing in ‘Nam Vets about 10 years after they returned home. The returning soldiers from the Middle East are having signs of the disorders much sooner.

“There’s something about going back, and a third and a fourth time, that really aggravates that level of stress,” said Michael Blecker, executive director of Swords to Plowshares,” a San Francisco homeless-vet outreach program.

“And being in a situation where you have these IEDs, everywhere’s a combat zone. There’s no really safe zone there. I think that all is just a stew for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

While this war does not reflect the harsh homecomings that Vietnam is shamefully remembered for once a vet is home those around them quickly move on from the homecoming. The promised jobs don’t always come. Those who haven’t been in the war don’t understand them.

War changes people,” says John Driscoll, vice president for operations and programs at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “Your trust in people is strained. You’ve been separated from loved ones and friends. The camaraderie between troops is very extreme, and now you feel vulnerable.”

The VA spends about $265 million annually on programs targeting homeless veterans. And as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face problems, the VA will not simply “wait for 10 years until they show up,” Pete Dougherty, the VA’s director of homeless programs, said when the new figures were released.

“We’re out there now trying to get everybody we can to get those kinds of services today, so we avoid this kind of problem in the future,” he said.

Help may come but sadly there will always be that fraction that slips away unnoticed.

It’s collateral damage.


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