I saw the man sitting on a brick wall as I entered the building. As I exited the facility he asked if I had any change and as I rummaged my pockets I noticed the military duffel bag with the hand inscribed message “Vietnam Vet — 1969-71.” The scene was not in Dallas or another large city but the rest area on I-20 east of the Brazos River and before Weatherford. I was both shocked and saddened to find after three decades a U.S. vet pan-handling for money.
Several days later an Associated Press story published in the Star-Telegram provided information that enlightened me on just how frequent similar scenes are occurring across the country. A report to be released Thursday said that veterans make up more than a quarter of the homeless people in the United States, though they are only 11 percent of the adult population. The Alliance to End Homelessness, a non-profit organization, using data from the Veterans Affairs and the Census Bureau estimates that in all of 2006, 495,400 veterans were homeless at some point during the year. The newspaper account said, by comparison, the VA says 20 years ago the estimated number of veterans who were homeless at some point during the year was 250,000.
It would be easy to set aside the statistics and treat them as an inevitable outcome from war. The stereotype of Vietnam veterans of drug using, hard drinking misfits is an erroneous one, as most stereotypes are. I could not but help think about a friend from Stephenville and wonder how he is currently faring. He was a barber and his wife worked at the newspaper, they had two children and were active in their church and Foster’s Home for Children. But the demons from his tour in Southeast Asia began visiting him at night. The frequency and intensity of the visits increased to the point the family had to move to Kansas where he could get psychiatric treatment at a veteran’s hospital. After nearly 25 years of providing support and coping with the situation, his wife finally divorced him. It was difficult to imagine his current situation.
In looking at the composition of the homeless veterans it is not just a problem among middle-aged and elderly veterans the research found. Younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are finding their way into shelters and soup kitchens seeking services, treatment or help finding a job. Some advocates say such an early presence of veterans of the current wars is an ominous sign. According to the researchers it took a decade for the lives of Vietnam veterans to unravel to the point that they started showing up among the homeless. According to Daniel Tooth a director of veteran’s affairs in Pennsylvania, there is a pending tsunami of them because the mental health toll of these wars is enormous.
The intense, extended and repeated deployments leave newer veterans particularly vulnerable. Another demographic I found shocking with the homeless veterans is the Iraq vets are more likely to be women. According to the VA they are less likely to have substance abuse problems but more-likely to have mental illness. Most of the mental illness is related to post-traumatic stress.
Earlier this year the country was shocked when it learned of some of the shoddy conditions for soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. The scandal was politically played in the media for sure, but it still points to a side of war that is often left in the shadows. The public cannot let it remain there. Two years of free medical care is being offered to all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and the VA itself, or in partnership, has residential facilities to help with transition and rehabilitation of returning veterans. As a grateful nation we need to ensure that the funding remains and if necessary is increased. Today is Veterans Day and we all need to pause and think not only of the sacrifices with going to war but the residual effects of them when soldiers return. The sentiment expressed in “Support our Troops” signs and slogans must extend to veterans home from active duty.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.