Two veterans w/PTSD work together to transcend homelessness

Joe Holness, an Iraq war veteran helped another young vet into housing and is now working toward becoming a counselor for those yet to come home.

From the Dec. 25 edition of Street Roots

It manifests itself differently in different people. For Joe Holness it was anxiety, a constant need to be on the move. It was frustration and intolerance in the face of obstacles and crowds. Even a trip to Wal-Mart could be debilitating. For Neils Roley it set in as anger and a feeling that no one understood, which led to violent situations, and eventually homelessness and drug use. The nightmares, however, are common ground, a place where even comforting old memories could be hijacked by the violence of the war.

Both were combat veterans a generation apart – Joe in Iraq and Neils in Afghanistan – and post traumatic stress disorder complicated their lives in ways they say people who haven’t been there, haven’t seen what they’ve seen, could truly comprehend. So when Neils showed up at Joe’s house on a cold and rainy night in November, bloody and beaten from an attack on his camp, Joe was there to listen, to talk through what they each had experienced overseas and upon their return. It was a series of conversations that lasted nearly three weeks, while Neils lived at Joe’s home, and ended this month with Neils in housing, and with both veterans on a course toward ensuring a better homecoming for those who have yet to return.

The two had gotten to know each other over the summer; a friend of Joe’s daughters knew a friend of Neils and they had visited Joe’s home as guests. Neils and Joe had actually met briefly overseas, but didn’t keep in touch. Both have been back in the states for several years now, but while Joe had a home, a wife (also a veteran) and a daughter for support, Neils spiraled into a world of isolation. He had joined the Army in late 2004, shortly after his high school graduation, when he could no longer live with his family and couldn’t afford a place of his own. He served 15 months in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2007.

“I joined as a way out of being homeless,” he says. “I wanted to serve my country. I was willing and able. At the time I didn’t know better, but I thought I was doing the right thing.”

Neils describes his experiences overseas as abusive, more so by the men he served with than the enemy, the Taliban, which he faced in combat. When he returned home in June 2007, the memories became haunting.

“It didn’t effect me overseas,” Neils says. “It was when I came home that it really kicked in. I developed bad anger issues. I had nightmares of our own men shooting me, slitting my throat.”

There were ‘thank yous’ when he returned home, but otherwise, he says, he felt swept under the rug. After exhausting family options for housing, he became homeless, where his condition worsened. “People thought I was a lost cause,” he says. “I turned to drugs.”

Friends had told him that he would get over it. But they didn’t understand, he says, “I’ve killed people.”

When he showed up at Joe’s door in early November, Neils said he had nowhere else to turn.

“He can relate,” Neils said of Joe. “He can empathize with my situation. He’s been there, done that. He explained to me a lot of the things that were happening. He basically let me talk a lot and vent all the emotions that had been in my for a long time.”

Joe, he said, was someone older who can look at me for the person that I am, and understand that I did what I had to do to survive.”

A career Air Force man, Joe Holness served two tours overseas, in the United Arab Emirates for Operation Enduring Freedom, and later stationed with the Army in Iraq, returning home in 2004. He served as a master sergeant for almost a year in Balad, Iraq, about 40 miles east of Baghdad. It was a heavily targeted area, and attacks were almost a daily event.

“You’re living through this, day in and day out,” Joe says. “You’re with people on their third, fourth and fifth deployment. What people don’t understand — the government and people back home — is that you can’t just turn that stuff on and off like a light switch. It doesn’t happen that way. You’ve got people coming home, doing a 24/7 live-or-die type mission, or lifestyle, and you come back to this and you’re expected to just turn it all off, and you can’t do it.”

As much as Neils and Joe had to share with each other, they also struggled with the aggravating dynamic of two veterans working through their own personal recovery from the trauma from the wars.  “It was difficult,” Joe says. “We made it work, but it was hard on everybody.”

The two even spoke about their experiences to high school students, presenting a more realistic side of the military than what they hear from recruiters, Joe says.

When Joe returned in 2004, he came home with severe back problems, a chronic ringing in his ears, and his eyesight, once 20/20, in decline. He fought, he says, to get the benefits he needed from the VA, which considers him 70 percent disabled according to their ranking system for benefits. He takes numerous medications to alleviate the pain and quell the PTSD.

The tedious process of getting those benefits, the mountains of paperwork, the need for counseling – from a veteran’s perspective – and the fact that so many veterans don’t even apply, enraged Joe.

“You’ve have people coming home, like Neils, for instance, and they run into problems or have issues. The military isn’t there to help them. The VA doesn’t help you other than get you into the door for medical issues. But other than that there really isn’t anything there set up to deal with all these veterans. There’s a bunch of them coming home, and there are going to be more.”

Approximately 1. 7 million service members have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001, and determining how many of those returned with mental health issues including PTSD is still a subject of study. In 2007, the RAND Corp. conducted research that concluded that about one-third of those previously deployed have experienced PTSD, major depression or traumatic brain injury – and that about 300,000 currently suffer from PTSD or major depression. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between 6 percent and 11 percent among Afghanistan veterans, and between 12 percent and 20 percent for veterans of the Iraq war suffer from PTSD. RAND also found that only about half (53 percent) of those who met the criteria for current PTSD or major depression had sought help from a physician or mental health provider for a mental health problem in the past year.

Joe’s priority was to get Neils into the VA system to get him the medical help Neils needed. The next steps were employment and a place to live, barriers to anyone who has lived on the streets, and particularly for people suffering from PTSD. After several efforts to find a place, Joe and Neils found Lacey’s House, a new low-income housing program in Hillsboro run by the husband and wife team of Mike and Lacey Bryant. In the rural surroundings of Hillsboro, the Bryants saw the rising population of homeless who traversed the city’s streets, and decided to invest their own money and time toward renovating the old home across from their used car dealership into housing for people looking to get off the streets. They charge $425 a month for living quarters, and have service providers working with residents to connect them with employment and support programs.

Their newfound vocation exposed them to more people, veterans in particular, living in the woods to the west of Lacey’s House, and now the couple are working to open a similar house in 2010 specifically for homeless veterans. Driven by faith, and the need in the community, the couple have even taken a van to the woods, and chauffeured veterans to VA and other services.

St. Luke Lutheran Church of Portland stepped up to provide Neils with his first month’s rent – a service provided through their Veterans Bridge Fund Project. The project provides small, one-time grants to returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who need emergency help in their transition back to civilian life. It was a godsend for Neils, who moved into Lacey’s House in early December and is now working with a temp agency.

“I decided to let go of my tribulations and be honest with people,” Neils says. “It really set me straight. All I wanted to do was work and get my life straightened out.”

Neils now attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings and has found a place to talk about his problems.

“People here are understanding,” he says. “It really does help. I have more confidence about myself. I want to progress in life.”

Progress for Neils means going to school to get a degree in psychology, with which he hopes to use to counsel other young veterans returning from war – from a fellow veteran’s perspective.

“That’s why I want to go to school. To come back and take his job so I can really help the vets out there who come back from war.”

For Joe, his relationship with Neils only reinforced his commitment to assist fellow vets in their transition home. Joe has a degree in environmental science and modern psychology, and is now studying for his masters in educational leadership. He wants to get into counseling, an extension of what he did as a platoon sergeant in Iraq, trying to keep people from killing each other, he says. Neils reminded him how badly those services are still needed at home.

“It just lit that fire more of what I want to do,” Joe says. “When I graduate, I want to work with people. I fight for what I believe in. I believe that I can help other vets. This, to me, was like, here’s somebody who has gone through the same thing I went through, and a bunch of other people are going through, and it took one of our own.”

By Joanne Zuhl, Staff writer

Photo by Ken Hawkins

3 responses to “Two veterans w/PTSD work together to transcend homelessness

  1. i always hit the key before i put my words together i am touch by this story as i beleive it from having happen in my sister life after the last war so i sympatise and admire that veteran to have given his help to the other and started the chain of event that made him recover i admire people that are willing to care for other thank you.

  2. I thought you would be interested in a US Department of Labor program helping employers understand TBI and PTSD in the work place in an effort to increase the employment success of combat veterans. The feature Web site,, is comprised of free resources dispelling common myths, educating about accommodations, and discussing the best management practices that can be applied. I work on the project but as an OIF veteran myself, I enjoy reading about the successes of my fellow veterans. Thanks for the great story!

  3. cyndy flock

    It would be good to spread the word about Heads up for Heroes…a program for free TBI/PTSD treatment for OEF/OIF veterans. Neurofeedback training. A cooperative effort by the National College of Natural Medicine (on Fourth, downtown Portland) and private neurofeedback practitioners. Call Kayle Sandberg-Lewis 503 234-2733.

    Reutrning Veterans Resource Project NW provides free counseling, one-on-one and confidential, for returning OEF?OIF vets and their families. Look for them online.

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