Veterans Day is a time when America pauses — if for that long — to honor their friends, family members and neighbors throughout the country who have served their nation with honor in its armed forces. But those tributes are hollow without action to support them in their time of need. And for countless thousands of veterans, their needs are enormous.
Consider the plight of the homeless veterans in the United States. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports no agency keeps statistics on how many there are, but it is known that their number is growing. Veterans make up about 11 percent of the U.S. population. But according to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, veterans account for 23 percent of all homeless people in America.
A significant number of those homeless are veterans of Vietnam or other battles since then. They have been struggling with emotional problems and the physical maladies they can prompt for years.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported last week that the Veterans Affairs Department and various aid groups say they are bracing for a new surge in homeless veterans in the years ahead. Experts who work with veterans say it often takes several years after leaving military service for veterans’ accumulating problems to push them into the streets. But some aid workers say the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans appear to be turning up sooner than the Vietnam veterans did. The ease with which drugs can be obtained is one factor contributing to their rapid decline. The short memory of civilians for whom they trained, fought and served is another.
With women taking on new roles in the military, the next generation of homeless veterans will also see different demographics, assistance group leaders say. More than 11 percent of newly homeless veterans are women, the Times reported, and that percentage will only grow.
Furthermore, characteristics of current wars may contribute to homelessness, including high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and traumatic brain injury, which can cause unstable behavior and substance abuse. Long and repeated tours of duty, which can make the reintegration into families and work all the harder, are factors as well, as the struggle in places like Iraq and Afghanistan continues.
On Wednesday, the Bush administration announced what it described as “remarkable progress” for the chronic homeless. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso R. Jackson said a new policy of bringing the long-term homeless directly into housing, backed by supporting services, had put more than 20,000, or about 12 percent, into permanent or transitional homes. While veterans have been among the beneficiaries, Mary Cunningham, director of the research institute of the National Alliance and chief author of their report, said the share of supported housing marked for veterans was low.
The Veterans Administration is continuing to step up its efforts with outreach officers who identify those who need help. One obstacle is that many veterans wait too long to seek help. They were trained to be strong, and to them asking for help seems to be an admission of weakness.
It is not. Increasing numbers of veterans, including those we are creating in this generation, have seen things and experienced horrors the rest of us cannot imagine. While the rest of us can’t fully understand their experience, we can help them find help and assist their families as they attempt to cope and adjust to civilian life.