Gimme Shelter: VA is MIA on Mental Health and Homelessness Among Veterans


Gimme Shelter: VA is MIA on Mental Health and Homelessness Among Veterans

Herold Noel served his time in the military, including the first five months of the Iraq war in 2003 as a fuel handler for the military. He returned from Iraq in August of that year to Brooklyn, N.Y., hoping for a welcome and a helping hand from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), something he had been told to expect. That was not to be.

“The government says one thing, but does another,” says Noel. “I came back to New York thinking there would be support; that I would have a job, but I was sadly mistaken.” After eight months of cold sleepless nights in his car, the 25-year-old veteran finally has a place he can call home. If it weren’t for an anonymous donor who paid for a year’s rent, Noel would still be on the streets of Brooklyn, unable to see his wife and four kids.

Noel says he contacted several government programs, including the VA, but was told he’d have to wait up to a year for services. “It’s time for the government to wake up,” he says. “If soldiers come back and find out they were lied to, we’re going to have a rebellion on our hands.”

As small waves of Iraq vets return home, organizations that offer housing, employment and counseling services expect the problems will be unlike anything the United States has ever seen. They say they’re not prepared and the federal government isn’t offering enough support and assistance.

In some cases, the government is literally putting them out on the streets.

A few weeks ago, a Cincinnati County commissioner in Ohio called Charlie Blythe, a Vietnam vet and coordinator of the state’s Goodwill Industries’ Programs for Homeless Veterans, and told him that an Iraq vet was about to be released from a local alcohol treatment program run by the VA and the man had nowhere to go. Blythe agreed to house the vet until he secures another spot at the VA. “Doesn’t that make a lot of sense?” Blythe asks sarcastically. “The VA treats someone for 28 days and releases him, even though they know he doesn’t have a home.”

Blythe is currently housing three Iraq vets and has already received e-mails from many more who expect to be on the streets after they return from Iraq. “The people that are coming back are not the men and women that we sent over there and we don’t have the funding to take care of them,” he says.

“The message our government is basically sending our troops is, ‘Once you take off that uniform, you’re on your own,'” says Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), a nonprofit that works to end homelessness among veterans. “To say the Department of Defense isn’t doing an adequate job of preparing the military for civilian life would be an understatement.”

The VA says Boone is missing the point. “The DOD’s role isn’t to teach me how to be a good civilian,” says Pete Dougherty, director of the VA’s homeless services. “Their role is to teach me how to be a good sailor or a good active duty member.”

Boone recently conducted a survey of 19 member organizations across the country that counted 67 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan in homeless shelters last year. “Homelessness is going to be a huge problem, but we don’t see the DOD even acknowledging there is a class of homeless vets.”

Dougherty acknowledges a problem exists, but insists it won’t be a “huge problem.”

Still, organizations that serve homeless vets are preparing for the worst. “I think it’ll be a lot more intense than Vietnam,” says Bart Casimir, director of health and social services of Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based organization of vets helping vets.

Casimir, who served as a paramedic in Vietnam, says when Bay Area Iraq vets return home, the reservists will need the most assistance. “Think about it – when you’re in the reserves, you meet once a weekend, then have two weeks of active duty every year and that’s it. Reservists aren’t used to holding guns,” he says. “A lot of those reservists will be totally displaced.”

Casimir says it took about 12 years after the Vietnam War ended to figure out the scope of the homeless problem. This time around, he expects it’ll hit society in the face. “Get ready to hear about soldiers battering their wives and acting violently. It’s already happening,” he says.

The case of Marine Lance Cpl. Andres Raya is one example of what Casimir is talking about. Raya served in Iraq last year but wasn’t quite the same when he returned to Ceres, Calif. Friends told the San Francisco Chronicle that Raya would stare into space during conversations or lock himself in his room and listen to music for hours. They said he once fell asleep at a party and when they woke him, he screamed at them and reached for a gun that wasn’t there.

On Jan. 9, Raya, who had been told he was being returned to Iraq, went berserk. He walked into a liquor store with an assault rifle, ordered the clerk to call police and when they arrived, he fired at the police officers, killing one of them and injuring the other. He then ran around the building and through the backyards of homes, screaming at residents, telling them they were “innocent civilians” and would not be harmed. Police later gunned him down.

Military mental health experts say Raya most likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in Iraq last year.

The NCHV’s Boone expects PTSD will show up in huge numbers when vets return en masse because “soldiers are fighting in an urban environment. Anybody can be your enemy. You can be in the mess hall and get killed.”

That was Sgt. Joe Sharpe’s reality from March 2003 – April 2004. He served as a reservist rebuilding Iraq’s banking system and stock market. He expects to be redeployed next year. “Everyone is being shot at. There’s no way to get around hearing constant gunfire or explosions or trying to dodge rounds,” he says. “Large groups of people are being exposed to this type of trauma and we don’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with that.”

So what is in place?

The DOD won’t say, and suggested we call the National Guard or Army Reserve. At the National Guard, Lt. Col. Mike Milord would only say our questions were “good ones that deserve to be answered.” He suggested calling someone at the state level.

We tried the VA and gave up after being put on hold for 30 minutes. Later, Dougherty said that long wait was an “unusual circumstance.”

The NCHV’s Boone says the VA’s system is broken: “People just assume that the VA takes care of all vets, but they don’t. We don’t spend enough money on homeless people in general, let alone veterans.”

The process of seeking assistance through the VA can be daunting, says Rose Sutton, director of Next Step, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based non-profit that provides employment training and supportive housing services to 500 veterans a year. “If vets are wounded, the VA will care for them, but if they’re wounded mentally, they’ll take them through a lot of hoops and obstacles and make them prove the problem happened during duty.”

Sutton, Casimir and Boone say the public needs to put the pressure on politicians to demand the DOD help vets assimilate when they come home because it won’t do it voluntarily.

Boone moved to Washington D.C. nine years ago because she “thought people on Capitol Hill just didn’t understand the problem.” She assumed she would get the story out and the government would provide funding to organizations like hers. “I’m here nine years later and they still aren’t writing the checks.”

The U.S. is spending $4.8 billion a month on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, according to the Pentagon controller’s office. Says Boone: “Why should I have to spend so much of my time trying to get $50 million for a homeless vets program? Vets shouldn’t be homeless. We could prevent it for pennies compared to what the government is spending on the war. It makes no sense.”

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