National Guard Cpl. Joe Raicaldo is home from Iraq with things he didn’t have when he left: an honorable discharge, metal rods and screws up and down his spine, and an arm that moves like a robot’s. He’s also homeless, living in his car. There are at least 600 recent vets who are homeless.
Raicaldo’s story is one that tells how hard it is going to be to weave some of America’s warriors back into the fabric of home.
Government estimates suggest there could be as many as 1,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless.
Steve Peck, of U.S. Vets Inc., a group that serves homeless vets, describes it as a “trickle… but a persistent trickle that has not abated.” He said U.S. Vets alone has served 75 homeless Iraq and Afghanistan vets so far.
“It’s too many, too soon,” says Paul Sullivan of Veterans for America.
A Long-Standing Dilemma
The problem of homeless veterans in America is as old as the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Numbers rose sharply after the Civil War, and the issue pervaded the nation’s consciousness. That led the states and the federal government to create a network of soldiers’ homes.
World War I and the Depression created a new generation of homeless veterans. In 1932, the “Bonus Army” — thousands of impoverished, homeless World War I veterans — came to Washington to demand their promised bonus and found themselves facing tanks, bayonets and torches, brought in by Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur. Two veterans died in the violence.
A decade later, the memory of the “Bonus Army” debacle helped lead Congress to create the G.I. Bill of Rights, which offered financial aid that put millions of World War II veterans through college or into their own homes. The bill, along with the massive employment the war created, helped fend off homelessness for much of the Great Generation.
But the Vietnam-era soldiers were not as fortunate. The war era added tens of thousands of homeless vets to the streets of America.
Aftermath of Vietnam
There are many reasons for the large number of Vietnam-era homeless vets, starting with the sheer size of the military during the nine years that the United States was in Vietnam. Eight million veterans served during that period; 3 million of them served in Southeast Asia. What is now called post-traumatic stress disorder affected many Vietnam veterans.
In addition, the all-volunteer military, instituted in 1973, initially drew some young men with fewer job opportunities and more behavioral problems than the conscripted military. Studies found those vets were more likely to become homeless after leaving the military than their peers who hadn’t served.
Economic downturns and the shrinking stock of low-cost housing were also factors.
Experts say much has changed for the good for veterans leaving the military after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The government has programs specifically for veterans who become homeless, providing transitional housing, health care, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, job searches and job training for some. Such help did not exist after Vietnam.
And they say the government knows much more about the psychological injuries and needs of returning veterans — as well as their physical and medical needs.
Veterans’ advocacy groups have grown and adapted with the times as well. For instance, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the first group organized for Iraq vets, has its own blog.
Hoping to Avoid a New Era of Homeless Vets
A number of former soldiers — like Vietnam vet Steve Peck of US Vets — are working with homeless veterans from Los Angeles to Rochester, N.Y. In interviews with NPR, several of them echoed what Peck said: “I’m determined to see that the young men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan don’t receive the same treatment we did when we came back from Vietnam.”
While much has changed for the good, veterans advocates say it would be foolish to paint a rosy picture.
“The Bush administration has critically shortchanged veterans,” says Michael Michaud, a Democratic congressman from Maine who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The Department of Veterans Affairs declined to comment for this story.
Michaud pointed to recent reports by the Government Accountability Office. They found that the VA:
— is short 10,000 beds needed to serve homeless veterans;
— underestimated the number of troops that would return from Iraq this year suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder;
— failed to use millions of dollars set aside for mental-health needs for veterans, including veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan;
— underestimated its budget to serve veterans by $3 billion in 2005.
Michaud said Congress hasn’t done well by homeless veterans, either.
“Congress has failed to move a single bill to improve and expand the programs for homeless veterans,” he said.