Homeless Veterans Wait Years for Aid
John Staresinich is a Purple Heart veteran who has slept in cracks in highway overpasses and abandoned cars, camped out in thin tents next to railroad tracks and fought off rats and bugs in Chinatown flophouses.
In December, he was diagnosed with severe combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder — 32 years after returning from Vietnam — and is now getting help from the federal Veterans Affairs in Chicago. He says it took more than a year of begging that agency.
“Soldiers from Iraq are going to come back with PTSD,” said Staresinich, 54. “I hope they treat them sooner than they did me.”
Mental health experts are predicting that as many as one-third of all Iraqi veterans will suffer from PTSD, a disabling disorder characterized by flashbacks and war nightmares. A similar percentage of Vietnam veterans have been diagnosed with the disorder — although it took decades for the government to recognize, treat and compensate those veterans.
Still, the VA officially maintains there’s no connection between military combat and homelessness. But people who work with veterans believe otherwise.
“Many people will tell you that military service is not a significant contributing factor to homelessness. But it clearly is a factor,” said Pete Dougherty, national director of the VA’s homeless veterans programs. “There are more veterans who have shown up in the ranks of the homeless than their average age cohort.”
There are 93,000 homeless Vietnam veterans, VA officials say. Illinois has the nation’s third-largest population of homeless vets — about 20,000.
Already about 100 soldiers from Iraq have turned up at homeless shelters around the country. And a study released last summer found that 17 percent of early returning Iraqi soldiers suffered from PTSD. Less than half of them had sought mental health care.
“I think PTSD is probably higher than it was in Vietnam because of the intensity of this conflict and the fact that we’re calling up a whole different demographic category of people for this conflict than we did in Vietnam,” said Dr. Ron Davidson, director of the mental health policy program at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s psychiatry department. Davidson directs counseling services for the Illinois Family Resource Network, the state’s outreach program for National Guard and Reserve family members.
Most soldiers in Vietnam were under 25, unmarried and had no children, Davidson said. In this war, most soldiers — especially those from the National Guard and Reserve units — are older, married and have children.
The Defense Department says it is evaluating soldiers before deployment, after they return home and three to six months later to determine whether they are at risk for the disorder.
That was certainly not the case when veterans returned from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s reporting constant fear, sleeplessness, anxiety and violent dreams. The military did not acknowledge their symptoms as a mental disability until 1980. By then, some veterans had been home for 15 years.
“The VA has to get out of the mentality of sitting and waiting for the patient to come to them,” Davidson said. “This is definitely a perverse part of the system.”
Homeless veterans are a difficult segment of society to serve. They are transient and, according to VA studies, about 45 percent are mentally ill and 70 percent have substance addictions.
The Chicago VA’s Homeless Coordinator refused an interview but her office released a list of programs that target homeless veterans, including an outreach effort that tries to get housing for those who are mentally ill.
But mentally disabled veterans, like Staresinich, say the VA’s bureaucracy — which demands reams of paperwork and months of haggling — leaves them waiting for disability decisions and appointments with doctors.
“The VA is oriented with procedure,” said John Rodriguez, a veterans representative with the Disabled American Veterans in Chicago who files disability claims for homeless veterans.
On Thursday, a Chicago Police officer and a social worker brought a homeless Vietnam veteran, a Purple Heart recipient, to Rodriguez. But when Rodriguez tried to get the VA to review the man’s case, he was told he couldn’t prove the veteran was homeless. Rodriguez had to get affidavits from the cop and the social worker before the VA would take the case.
Staresinich says he also ran into obstacles when he went to Hines VA hospital in December 2003, asking to “be committed.”
“I said I was suicidal. I begged them to help me. I wanted to see a doctor, a psychiatrist. I told them there’s something really wrong with my head,” said Staresinich, looking gaunt, his steel-blue eyes sunken like a skeleton. “They told me there was a wait for rehab.”
Staresinich knew he had to have proof of his military service. In his grimy pants pocket, he carried around a tattered copy of his DD-214 form — his discharge paper. It described another man, a war hero, a South Side 19-year-old who was drafted into the Army in June 1970 and returned home in February 1972 with a fistful of medals.
Now, just a whiff of garbage or a refrain from “Nights In White Satin” is all it takes for Staresinich to travel three decades back to the jungles of Vietnam, gunning down whatever moved in his scope.
He was a 20-year-old machine- gunner on an assault chopper, a soldier who threw around body parts, destroyed people’s homes and killed women and children.
“I’m doing this great thing for our country. My parents were proud of me. We were saving these people from communism,” he said.
After six months immersed in the bloodbath, Staresinich couldn’t sleep. In his nightmares, he was confronted with the faces of those he’d slain. That’s when another soldier offered him drugs and a drink. “Here, this will make you sleep,” he told Staresinich.
Thirty-two years, a marriage and several well-paying factory jobs later, Staresinich’s battle to forget has cost him everything — even his shiny war hero’s image.
“I think about Vietnam about a 100 times a day,” Staresinich said. “I hear songs on the radio that take me back. I see the war on TV. This stuff doesn’t go away. If anything it gets worse.”
Sleep aids: Beer, gin, drugs
To avoid recurring, violent nightmares, Staresinich has bought anti-anxiety drugs on the street. His sleep tonic also includes a case of beer or a fifth of gin.
In his dreams, the Viet Cong are always chasing him. In recent years, they have come the closest yet to killing him — having shot him twice and stabbed him once.
“In the dream, it seems real. It’s like I’ve never left,” he said. “I need medicine. I can’t put up with these dreams.”
About a month after his visit to Hines, Staresinich received a letter from the VA alerting him that he was eligible for health care. Staresinich says he wrote two letters back asking for help. He has several missing teeth and often his teeth ache so bad that he applies medicine directly to his gums.
“They never answered back once. I gave up,” Staresinich said.
He was so desperate for food and money that at one point he considered robbing a Brinks truck.
Staresinich said he became homeless about two years ago after his wife locked him out. She had put up with his decades of drinking binges and his three DUIs. They are now in divorce proceedings, he said. He has two daughters, 24 and 18.
After more than a year sleeping where he could, doing odd jobs –like delivering dead chickens –Staresinich, who receives food stamps, hooked up with a guy who gets Social Security and has a small apartment. Staresinich trades food stamps to sleep on the couch. But his buddy’s got a girlfriend now.
Another Vietnam veteran, Dave Marich, who runs a Southeast Side body shop, took Staresinich to a meeting of the Purple Heart veterans service organization. There Staresinich met Rodriguez, the veterans’ representative.
Staresinich was shocked that he would even qualify for disability.
“All those years I thought you had to be an amputee in order to be disabled,” Staresinich said. “No one told us differently.”
On Sept. 3, 2004, Rodriguez filed Staresinich’s disability claim for PTSD, unemployability and hearing loss. His file was marked with a dark pink tag to signify that the case involved a homeless veteran and needed to be expedited.
It took five months for a decision. On Jan. 7, the VA ruled that Staresinich is 100 percent disabled. Three weeks later, he received a $6,777 check retroactive to September when his claim was filed. He will receive $2,299 a month and plans to get his own apartment so his 18-year-old daughter can live with him.
But his veteran friends worry that it may be too late for Staresinich, who, flush with cash, now spends much of his time in neighborhood bars.
Another Vietnam veteran, Jerald Szemes, 57, of Michigan City, Ind., became homeless last year while fighting the VA for disability. Last May, Szemes started living in his Ford van. His bed companions were a homemade spear and a bayonet.
“In Vietnam, I slept with weapons,” Szemes said. “I never got out of the habit.”
As a Navy Seabee, he built look-out towers in the jungles: “We were like sitting ducks — 90 feet in the air with no place to go — taking sniper fire as we were going up there,” said Szemes, who tries to steady his shaky hands with a cigarette and a Diet Pepsi.
Szemes’ military trauma started before he left the United States. In 1969, during boot camp in Gulf Port, Miss., his unit was hit by Hurricane Camille. He spent two weeks picking up bloated bodies.
“We had to wear gas masks because the odor was so bad,” he said, his voice cracking.
In Vietnam, he extricated body parts caught in razor wire after enemy soldiers tripped hidden bombs. He lost part of his hearing when a bomb hit his camp.
When Szemes returned home, he expected a homecoming.
“I was hoping to see a band playing John Philip Sousa, but that wasn’t the case,” Szemes said.
Instead Szemes and other veterans were told not to congregate and not to travel together in order to avoid protesters at the airport.
Health experts say being welcomed home is an important factor in a soldier’s recovery from painful war experiences.
Back home, Szemes, a construction worker, wasn’t able to keep a job. After Vietnam, he developed a fear of heights and couldn’t climb ladders. He couldn’t hear anyone unless they were speaking directly to him. By 1986, Szemes’ disorder was out of control. “I knew something was wrong. I was angered with people. I was depressed and paranoid and having nightmares,” he said.
Several of his recurring nightmares involve a 6-year-old hurricane victim whose body was so badly decomposed that her bones were sticking out. Another involves the body of a man he and others are freeing from tree limbs when it falls on them, raining down maggots and body parts.
On May 2, 1986, Szemes rigged up a rope and tried to hang himself, but his roommate discovered him and cut him down. Szemes’ mother called the VA hospital and asked to have him committed.
He spent three weeks in the psychiatric ward at Hines, but was released when he told the doctor he was all right, he said.
After he hit a man with a pipe three months later, he landed in the hospital again — this time for treatment for alcoholism.
“They should have told me that I had PTSD,” Szemes said angrily.
He was treated for several heart attacks from 1996 to 2002 at Hines and learned he has Agent-Orange-related diabetes. Nurses told him to file for disability pay.
On Feb. 4, 2003, Szemes filed for disability compensation for hearing loss, diabetes and PTSD. The head of Hines’ Post-traumatic Clinical Team diagnosed Szemes with combat-related PTSD. Because Szemes lives in Indiana, his claim was filed with the VA regional office in Indianapolis.
In August 2003, that office rated him 30 percent disabled. It denied his hearing loss and PTSD claim. Szemes appealed the decision. After months of waiting and trying to live on $310 in disability pay, Szemes was forced to move into his van. A Michigan City couple allowed him to park near their garage and run an extension chord to power a space heater.
Still a prisoner of trauma
Meanwhile, Szemes’ nightmares continued. In one, Szemes relives the death of a Vietnamese boy who was run over by an asphalt truck. The boy was trapped between two giant wheels, and he was burned by the asphalt. The boy died, but his screams still haunt Szemes.
Last October, Szemes’ counselor introduced him to Rodriguez, who had the case transferred to Chicago.
In December, Szemes was rated 100 percent disabled. In January, Szemes received a check for $37,000, retroactive to when he first filed his claim in 2003.
Szemes paid off credit cards that he lived on for two years and rented an efficiency apartment in Michigan City. He just celebrated two years of sobriety.
But Szemes says he is still a prisoner of his war traumas. Every time it rains, his mind goes back to the hurricane and the bodies. Loud noises make him uneasy. He takes 23 prescription pills a day. He attends PTSD group therapy each week, and he avoids people, spending much of his day sitting alone in his tiny apartment. He knows he’ll be dependent on the government for the rest of his life.