The expression was born in Vietnam, a surreal place so different from accustomed reality that many American military personnel spent their whole tour of duty in a state of disorientation. “The world” was anyplace that wasn’t Vietnam, and they longed to return to it, only to find, once they got back, that the USA was even more impossible to cope with.
Things haven’t changed much. Veterans are 50% more likely to experience homelessness than Americans who were not in the armed forces. They tend to stay homeless longer than non-veterans , and are more likely to develop life-threatening medical conditions. They are also more likely to die on the streets.
William Jackson, of the National Association of Black Veterans, has mentioned another facet of the overall problem that is not often called to mind — the fact that many now-homeless vets were not full-time active duty military when they went to Iraq or Afghanistan:
A lot of National Guard soldiers were sent to this war. Many of them only had income from their drill checks before they went off to war. When they come back home, they still have nothing.
What they do have, in many cases, is post-traumatic stress disorder or mental illness.
Faces of Veteran Homelessness
University of Virginia undergraduate Matt Farwell is an accomplished writer whose account of being a 27-year-old homeless vet was published by The New York Times in October of 2011. His biography and resume don’t fit anybody’s stereotypical picture of a homeless guy, and during his time on the streets he kept up a successful facade. This is, in fact, one of the problems with any kind of official census of homeless veterans. One way or another, many of them fly under or above the radar. He writes:
Four and a half years in the Army, including 16 months as an infantryman in eastern Afghanistan, provided plenty of skills with no legal application in the civilian world. It was, however, wonderful preparation for being homeless.
He had lost two close friends in Afghanistan, along with his brother, who was also in the military. A comrade who had likely saved Farwell’s life died of an overdose a year after discharge. One of his former NCOs committed “suicide by cop” after returning stateside. Farwell himself lost his balance for a while, but formed a determination to be treated by a highly regarded VA Facility in California, and received the help he needed to get back on track. He says:
Memories […] helped keep me alive and sane amid the boredom, ennui, confused terror and brief moments of adrenaline-fueled elation of combat — a euphoric sense of zen-like calm and focus that’s better than any drug I’ve ever tried or heard about — but they’ve been doing their damnedest to kill me and my friends since we got back.
The top of Matt Farwell’s Twitter page says, “Turns out I’m not dead, despite what you heard.”
For more individual stories, please consult the documentary “Street Vets,” made by Issac Goeckeritz. One of the homeless vets he interviewed, Eugene Morris, told the filmmaker:
I was severely depressed, and I tried to wreck myself. I tried suicide, and I was addicted to drugs…
Morris was one of the lucky ones, fortunate enough to find First Step House in Salt Lake City, and to find within himself the resources to make use of the opportunity.
Young and Combat-Ready
During 2011, the overall number of homeless vets was said to drop by 7% or thereabouts, but the number of specifically Afghanistan war veterans more than doubled in that time period. Again, the Veterans Administration admitted that the number could be higher because not everyone reports in. For USA TODAY, Gregg Zoroya pointed out an attention-getting statistic concerning folks returned from Afghanistan and the other most recent war, Iraq. Around 70% have had combat exposure, as compared to somewhere around 20% to 30% amongst the total number of homeless veterans.
Psychologically, that can make a big difference. Even if it can be shown that the total number of homeless vets has decreased, the population includes a larger proportion of unstable and volatile personalities than ever before — belonging to relatively young people — which makes it even more essential to help them reintegrate into society. Because the alternatives are not attractive.
The President and the VA
Running for reelection, Barack Obama said:
When you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you’ve served us, because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job or a roof over their head or the care that they need when they come home.
Sounds good. Maybe there will come a day when vets no longer have to file class-action lawsuits against the Veterans Administration, to force the bureaucracy to stop ignoring post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma and the devastating long-term effects of Agent Orange.
A extraordinarily humane story by Kyle Martin for The Augusta Chronicle brought to light some of the daily struggles faced by veterans on the streets:
- Inability to escape the summer heat, which is exacerbated by some medications.
- The public library’s locked restrooms and habit of throwing out anyone caught asleep.
- The extreme difficulty of getting around, and defending oneself from attack, in a wheelchair, whether manual or electric.
- Walking or wheeling a chair to a soup kitchen can use up as many calories as the food provides.
- Meals often contain pork or other foods that those with restricted diets can’t eat, making a wasted trip and even more depletion of bodily strength.
- Additional danger from attackers who want to steal pills, which veterans lucky enough to receive some kind of treatment will probably be carrying.
- Long hold times when calling the VA hospital, using up precious phone minutes, and the difficulty of being notified about appointments without an address or phone.
One of the comments appended to Martin’s article castigated fellow veterans who have managed to get their lives back and feel free to criticize the homeless:
In combat we, I never left anyone behind but now that you are ‘back in the world’ it is ok for you to abandon your brothers in arms.
Source: “Veterans 50 Percent More Likely To Be Homeless, Study Shows,” The Huffington Post, 02/10/11
Source: “More Black War Veterans Ending Up Homeless,” BlackAmericaWeb.com, 11/11/10
Source: “Back Home, and Homeless,” The New York Times, 10/05/11
Source: “Unknown soldiers: Documentary follows Ogden’s homeless vets,” Standard.net, 01/30/11
Source: “Number of homeless veterans explodes,” USA TODAY, 07/26/11
Source: “Homeless in the Home of the Brave,” The Huffington Post, 09/14/12
Source: “Conditions dire for homeless veterans,” The Augusta Chronicle, 05/30/11
Image by EsotericSapience.