Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The New Wave: Our Future Homeless (Vets)

Contemplating this week’s PBU9 topic (our returning vets), I didn’t have far to go to find something that hit close to home: poor (struggling or homeless) vets who have been lost in the machinations of the system. It’s all too common a problem, and one that you saw a lot of where I came from. There was Dave, the vet who was supplementing his meager disability checks by doing odd jobs and helping repair cars (even though he wasn’t very good at it). There was Gary, in a wheelchair (not from the war), who struggled to get the VA to cover any of his medical needs.

There are thousands of them, all around us, only we don’t know it because they’re standing on the side of the street with a sign in their hand and we walk around them. Oh, we feel guilty for doing it, but we do it just the same because what’s the guarantee that he won’t take that money and go get plastered instead of taking care of himself? How are we to know what he did forty years ago in some far-away jungle, or just a year ago in the sands of Iraq?

And yes, it will happen with this generation, just as it did the last:

“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.” (Chicago Sun-Times)

The horrors of war take a terrible toll. Of those two men that I knew, one would never speak of his experiences in Korea and Vietnam; the other suffered from terrible nightmares, so much so that he slept tops four hours a night (he swore he just didn’t need the sleep). Now imagine a war that’s just as horrific. There are a lot of parallels between Vietnam and the current war in Iraq, at least as Gary used to tell it. Just like in Vietnam, there is downtime punctuated by horrific violence. Just like in Vietnam, they can’t tell the enemy from the allies. Just like in Vietnam, they wonder what they’re fighting for. I can’t imagine how we can’t experience a do-over of the psychological problems that confronted soldiers returning from Vietnam.

And, of course, the government will likely continue to do nothing about the problem:

“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.” (Chicago Sun Times)

There are already about 100 soldiers from Iraq at our homeless shelters. Will the VA reach out to these people and help treat their symptoms, or let them suffer while the wheels of bureaucracy grind them to a pulp? Unfortunately, America is not a nation that learns from its mistakes, so I expect we will see the same thing we always do: more of the same.

Posted by crimnos @ 9:26 AM