December 9, 2007 – Last May, Tim Chapman was sitting in his car on the edge of a cliff, weeping. If he took his foot off the brake, he would go over the edge – to silence, to peace, and to death.
“It was a truck stop in Truckee,” Chapman said. “I was driving to Reno. I was literally going to kill myself. I kept thinking: I should have stayed in Iraq. I should have died over there.”
The 23-year-old National Guardsman, just six months back from a tour in the combat zone, sat on the brink for two hours. Even today, he isn’t sure why he didn’t launch himself over the side.
Instead, he backed off the cliff and drove himself to a hospital in Roseville. Within three days, he was in the psych ward at a Veterans Affairs hospital. Today, after extensive therapy, he thinks his life is beginning to make sense again.
It’s a wrenching story. But this isn’t the end of it. It is just the beginning.
First a few facts. Bobby Rosenthal, regional manager for homeless programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, estimates that one third of the more than 6,000 homeless people – about 2,100 – in San Francisco are veterans.
And no wonder the number is so high. California leads the nation in homeless veterans by a mile, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. The 2006 numbers showed 49,724 homeless vets in California. The next nearest state was New York with 21,147.
Now here’s the scary part. Compared with what’s coming, that’s nothing.
Roughly 750,000 troops served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, often with multiple tours of duty. Many are only now returning home. But unlike Vietnam veterans, who didn’t begin to demonstrate post-war trauma until five or 10 years after they left the war, this group seems to be on a fast track.
“Everything is speeded up,” said Michael Blecker, executive director of San Francisco’s Swords to Ploughshares program. “What we’re seeing in San Francisco is guys in their 20s with the kind of stress and trauma that makes it impossible to go on with their lives.”
It’s been called a health care tsunami. Because not only are the Iraq vets prone to post-traumatic stress disorder (something Chapman has battled) but with improved battlefield health care, far more are surviving traumatic injury. On one hand, that’s good news, but it also means many more vets who are severely disabled, having lost arms and legs. Both factors increase the chances that the returning troops will join the sad ranks of homeless veterans.
Cities all over the country are bracing themselves, although some, like San Francisco, are bound to be hit harder. Mayor Gavin Newsom says that at a recent conference of mayors, the group passed a resolution asking the VA “to tell us what you are going to do.”
“It’s great lip service,” Newsom said, “but show me the money.”
If history holds, the mayors shouldn’t hold their breath. If anything, benefits for veterans have been restricted. To take one example, many of us think of the World War II G.I. Bill as a shining example of a reward for service, paying for college for vets. But Blecker, of Swords for Ploughshares, says the current version “is in no way, shape, or form near enough” to pay for a degree.
As Newsom says, “Yeah, support the troops – as long as they are young, healthy and a great photo op.”
For San Francisco, the potential impact could be huge. An influx of traumatized, battle-scarred veterans presents a scary future. Consider the case of Scott Kehler, a veteran of the first Gulf War, who needed years to work through his demons. He recalls passing burned bodies and the constant fear that an explosion would suddenly erupt in the street.
“It was the things I didn’t want to see at night when I closed my eyes,” Kehler said. “I didn’t know what PTSD was. I only knew my dreams, my shame, my guilt, was all coming together.”
Kehler spent almost 16 years kicking around the country. He lived in shelters in San Francisco and ate in free kitchens until a friend suggested he get in contact with Ploughshares. He checked into the group’s transitional housing, a 60-person unit on Treasure Island, and began to find himself.
Today he has been hired by the organization as a residence manager. He’s lived there 18 months, which doesn’t sound like much until you hear him say, “This is the longest I have lived in one place since 1990.”
Kehler, who is mentoring Chapman, is testimony to the effectiveness of the Ploughshares slogan – “veterans helping veterans.”
“Especially now that we’ve got our veterans coming home from Iraq,” said Ploughshares counselor Tyrone Boyd, “we’re going to need people that have been in combat so they know what they are talking about.”
The challenges are unique. Wanda Heffernon, a program and clinical counselor for Ploughshares, said they had a new inductee who slept in the closet. It was the only place he felt safe.
It’s the sudden transition that gets them.
“One day they are fighting in a war,” said Kehler. “The next day they are sitting at their mother’s kitchen table.”
Is it any wonder they end up on the street? Kehler battled alcohol abuse, but Chapman is part of the new breed, who turn to methamphetamine. Married when he returned, he lost his wife and all contact with his parents. Eventually he ended up sleeping in an alley. Now drug-free, living at Treasure Island housing, holding down a full-time job, and reconnected with his mother, he is testimony to the idea that peer counseling seems to work. Ploughshares has earned support from Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Imagine the impact it would have on the San Francisco homeless problem if one third of those on street were able to get help and housing.
But what the vets don’t have is funding.
“Why isn’t the federal government doing something about this? Why isn’t the [VA] doing something?” Blecker asks. “The irresponsibility of our leaders, not to address this, makes me want to tear my hair out.”
The VA’s Rosenthal – who gets high marks from local leaders – says the problem is not being ignored.
“It’s a whole new set of challenges,” she said. “The VA is looking at it. Let’s hope we’ve learned our lesson from Vietnam.”
We can only hope.
“You know what scares me?” asks Boyd. “I haven’t heard a plan (from the federal government) about what they are going to do when the troops come home. What’s the plan?”
C.W. Nevius’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. His blog C.W. Nevius.blog can be found at SFGate.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.