A long way from home: Soldiers return from the battlefields

A soldier from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division carries his bag to begin his trip back to the United States at Camp Virginia, Kuwait. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Sarah Edmonds, Contributing Writer

Ryan McNabb was a medic in the Marine Corps for six years. He deployed twice to Iraq and worked on the front lines, experiencing, he says, what you’d expect to experience on a battlefield. He returned home in February 2006.

A few months later, he got in a fight and assaulted two police officers. He chalked it up to normal drunken sailor stuff — just blowing off steam.

When he blacked out in rage, while driving 65 miles per hour with his wife and five-month old son in the back seat, he realized it wasn’t normal any more.

“I know I’m an intelligent human being. I know why babies cry, and they’re trying to inform me of something,” McNabb said. “But with PTSD, I don’t like large sharp sounds. It reminds me of gunshots and explosions. My son had wet himself. He started to cry. I was driving. While he’s screaming at the back of my head, he’s screaming at my soul, which set me off. So I start screaming at my wife, while going 65 miles per hour down the freeway. She shouts back at me. I rip the rearview mirror off and threw it at the floorboard. I grabbed the GPS and threw it at the windshield and it spiderwebbed going 65 mph with my wife and child in back seat. I blacked out in rage. I don’t remember pulling to the side of the road at all.”

McNabb tells people his story readily, if not comfortably, because most of the people who hear it are veterans of combat duty like himself. McNabb is the outreach coordinator for the Portland Vet Center, one of five branch offices of the Department of Veterans Affairs that work specifically with people who have faced combat. He helps returning vets navigate a world far removed from a combat soldier’s reality. The center works with about 650 veterans, most of them Vietnam veterans, but McNabb was hired three years ago for outreach specifically to the returning soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands of Western troops are scheduled to leave those countries and make the journey home over the next couple of years. Those who leave the military will face an even more perilous journey — the road back into civilian society, where weak economic growth has made it increasingly difficult to get work.

This is a road that has already led to poverty and even to homelessness for thousands of veterans who travelled it in better economic times. Those who will now follow in their footsteps will be entering the mainstream amid increased risk of recession in Europe and the United States, and stubbornly high unemployment.

Government agencies in the United States, Britain, Canada and other nations that support those who have served are braced for the expected influx of new veterans. Officials are implementing new programs to help ease the transition from the military to civilian life. The great unknown, though, is how the economy will fare in months ahead.

Dr. Susan Angell, executive director of the Veterans Homeless Initiative at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the VA will be keeping a concerned eye on those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, given trends already evident in the job market.

“That population, that young population, has the highest unemployment rate of any of our veteran populations, and it’s much higher than the overall unemployment rate. So we’re very concerned about this group,” she said. According to Angell, joblessness among these younger veterans is running around 11.5 percent — higher still among female vets.

Jobs are crucial since officials and homeless experts agree that while a variety of factors make some veterans more vulnerable to personal crisis than the wider populace, the main reason they end up on the street is not drink or mental difficulties — it is poverty.

The drawdown of US troops in Iraq is already in full stride. In Afghanistan, NATO is training a force of 350,000 Afghan police and soldiers to take over when the last foreign troops leave Afghanistan by 2014.

“I don’t think there is a bureaucracy big enough to deal with the number of folks and the needs of the people who are coming back,” said Belle Landau, executive director of the Oregon Returning Veterans Project. Landau’s son is an Iraq War veteran.

The Returning Veterans Project is a statewide nonprofit that helps veterans with mental and physical problems related to their service. Service providers offer pro bono services for veterans. Among the most common issues are depression and anxiety, PTSD, drugs and alcohol abuse, and a new phenomenon — sexual addition, fueled by unlimited Internet access, lots of downtime, and the constant need for stress relief.

“In April, May 2010, 2,500 soldiers from the National Guard 41st Brigade came back to Oregon after an almost 12 months combat deployment,” Landau said. “Three months later, we saw a 144 percent increase in the number of clients we were serving.”

There are still relatively few of this new breed of veteran in the homeless population. But according to Neil Donovan, Executive Director of the U.S. National Coalition of the Homeless, those on the path to homelessness are still at the early stages of that transition.

“This is my 33rd year working in homeless services, so I have seen Vietnam veterans, I have seen other veterans, (and) I kind of have a good sense of how long it takes to come back home and spiral down. And it takes a while. It doesn’t happen in a year, and it doesn’t happen in two years,” he said.

“What tends to happen is you have a year’s worth of nightmares, and then your wife leaves,” he said, “And then you have another year of nightmares, and the Oxycontin or the Percoset that you’re on stop working because it’s a narcotic that will only work for so long, and then the pain becomes so profound that you begin using it beyond the prescribed amount, and then the doctor won’t prescribe it any longer so you start self-medicating, and then you start getting into illegal behavior.”

At this point, up to three years down the road, the soon-to-be-homeless veteran slides below the poverty line and the risk of homelessness becomes acute.

“We are quite far out from seeing the true wave of people who will become homeless. And there are going to be a lot of people who are homeless and the people who are homeless are going to be people who are physically handicapped as well as emotionally handicapped,” Donovan added.

There are other dangers in the current economy for the newest population of veterans. Many Western countries are cutting spending as they wrestle with huge deficits, and that could threaten funding for vital programs just at the point the newest veterans need help.

Canada recently proposed $226 million in budget cuts from its Veterans Affairs, but a government spokesman told Vancouver street magazine Megaphone these were aimed at improving efficiency rather than lowering benefits.

Canadian MP Peter Stoffer said he was concerned about the impact on health care and services. “As the official Opposition critic for Veterans Affairs, I have many examples of how the system of caring for our veterans is broken,” he wrote in a blog on the Canadian Veterans Advocacy website. “Veterans’ homelessness is also on the rise and more veterans are using food banks.”

Funding at the U.S. VA has actually risen after a 2009 pledge by U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and President Obama to end veteran homelessness by 2015. But Angell agrees it is hard to predict what will happen in the future.

“It’s hard to imagine that people wouldn’t be behind the employment of veterans,” she said. “And really that’s not just a government issue — that’s the American People’s issue. It’s not up to government to hire every single veteran. It’s really up to the private sector to join forces with that and make those employment opportunities available.”

Even though there are relatively few young veterans in the homeless population, there are already signs of potential trouble.

Determining a global count of veterans on the street is difficult, in part because of varying official definitions of what constitutes homelessness.

According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 144,842 American veterans, or 11.5 percent of homeless adults, spent at least one night in emergency or transitional housing between October 2009 and September 2010, down 3 percent from the year before. A second measure, the number of homeless veterans on a single night, rose 1 percent.

For its part, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in the United States estimates that while only 8 percent of the general populace are veterans, those who served in the military account for nearly one-fifth of the adult homeless population.

Official counts are likely low since they leave out veterans who never register at a homeless facility — those who go from friend’s house to friend’s house, sleep in cars, in the woods or on the streets. It also leaves out those who don’t admit to being veterans.

Jennifer Wilcox is the program manager for Central City Concern’s Employment Access Center, which works with about 300 homeless and near-homeless veterans. While most of their clients have been out of service for many years, this past year, they saw 9 veterans who had been out of service for three years or less, a significant increase over past years.

“We’re starting to see more,” Wilcox said. “We’re still waiting to see what these waves of returning vets is going to look like for us.”

Wilcox noted that unlike most other states, Oregon does not have an active service military base, a central point for veterans to connect with their military community and its services.

In place of such a base, the VA and the veteran community conduct Yellow-Ribbon events to keep veterans to stay connected with counseling, services and other opportunities.

Experts cite a host of reasons veterans may be at risk of homelessness: trouble adjusting to the chaotic rhythm of “normal” life after the comforting rigor of military routine, post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulty translating work in the service into marketable job skills, loss of camaraderie, dependence on alcohol or drugs, serious physical injury.

Veterans may also contend with all the issues that can cause homelessness in the mainstream of society: lack of affordable housing, jobs that don’t pay a living wage, red tape that makes social services impossible to navigate, physical or mental disabilities.

There is also the trained mindset of a soldier.

“One thing I’ve learned from this job is that a veteran will ask for help if their buddy needs help, but it’s difficult for them to ask for help for themselves,” said Belle Landau with Returning Veterans Project. “The other part is that only 1 percent of the country is serving in the military. Most people are disconnected from their neighbors who may be a military family. There’s such a disconnect in these two wars more than any other. It makes people feel isolated. If nobody knows, they feel totally disconnected, as if their service wasn’t worth much. The community needs to get more involved, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

McNabb echoed the same experience.

“My generation of service members is very skittish and they don’t necessarily come out and say I’m homeless,” McNabb said. “It is pride. The military is a very fear-based society. They pretty much tell you if you talk to someone, it’s on your permanent record. You have the pride of wearing the uniform, you’re children’s heroes, and now you’re needing help and asking for it? That just throws so many people off.”

The high unemployment rate, combined with personal relationship problems and the trauma of war are being blamed for Oregon National Guard having the highest rate of suicides of all national guards. Twelve soldiers at Fort Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash., took their lives in 2011, up from nine in 2010. More than 34,000 soldiers are based there, up from 19,000 prior to the Iraq War.

The new returning veterans also face a greater likelihood of serious physical disability than those of the past, according to Alison Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits at the U.S. VA.

“Those claims are coming in far more complex than we have experienced in past conflicts, largely for a good news reason,” Hickey said. “Our veterans are … 10 times more likely to survive a major injury or illness and that’s a good thing, but that means that we are going to be taking care of many more people for some very serious injuries for a long time.”

McNabb, in addition to his PTSD, suffered a traumatic brain injury, which has impaired his memory. Landau said they see many veterans with knee, back, shoulder and neck injuries as a result of the 80 to 100 pounds of equipment they carry on missions — injuries not outwardly apparent as combat related.

Donovan said there is an increased risk of substance abuse in U.S. veterans who suffer debilitating injuries because doctors often prescribe potentially addictive painkillers.

John Alford, 57, turned to the bottle after serving in Northern Ireland. Blinded in one eye by a nail bomb during his service with the First Gloucestershire Regiment, he saw two colleagues shot by snipers.

“You can never forget something like that,” he said. “After I left the army, I found it difficult to fit in and settle anywhere, and drink becomes something you suppress it all with. I lost a lot through it. I’ve been married four times.” Alford is sober now and is establishing a new life, assisted by the Forces Self Build Scheme in Bristol, a program that is helping ex-service personnel build their own housing.

Such grassroots initiatives, national veterans’ charities and government agencies have launched scores of programs in recent years to help military personnel with everything from housing to job training and advice. Many also connect veterans with veterans to give them a new sense of community and common experience.

Angell says many of the staff at the VA’s 300 centers across the United States are former combat veterans like McNabb who understand the trauma of life under fire.

Bryan Green, 64, a former staff sergeant in the UK’s Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, found it hard to adapt to civilian life after a quarter century in the military and suffered a breakdown three years ago. He finds the sense of belonging at Norcare’s veterans’ center invaluable.

“It takes a long time to re-adjust. Bills and everything else have been done for you, so you don’t have a clue. And you’re not part of a team. Suddenly the army is gone. A door has been shut in your life,” Green said. “When I can talk about these things with these guys, people who have been through the same things, it means a lot. … Bills and everything else have been done for you, so you don’t have a clue. And you’re not part of a team. Suddenly the army is gone”

Phil Quesnelle, recently released from the Canadian Forces on disability after receiving a diagnosis of PTSD, sits on the board of the South Mid Vancouver Island Zone Veterans Housing Society, which founded a transitional residence devoted to ex-service personnel struggling to find shelter.

He also acts as a peer counselor, offering others the benefit of his experience.

“It’s not a switch you can turn on or off,” Quesnelle said. “But people expect you to go back to normal over the span of that 10-hour flight back to Canada. It doesn’t work that way and people just don’t understand it.”

Conscious of the disproportionate numbers of ex-service personnel in the ranks of U.S. unemployed, the VA has hired 400 formerly homeless veterans to act as peer counselors for those trying to find work. They coach on resumes, talk through interviews and are at the end of a telephone to give support through the sometimes stressful early days on a new job.

It has also set up a new human resources office that helps job-seekers translate their work in the military into civilian job skills along with guidance on applications.

“We’re being very proactive because honestly since poverty is the definer of the pathway to homelessness, if at least we can drop that unemployment rate for our newest veterans coming back, that should be a big prevention strategy,” said the VA’s Angell.

The VA also negotiates with lenders to help veterans who can’t afford rent, and says its efforts kept 9 percent more veterans in their homes last year compared to prior years.

“It can be quite expensive to try to get someone who has been chronically homeless for many years off the street and stabilized, compared to what it might take to prevent it,” Angell said. “You can help someone with two months’ rent, compared to what it would cost in 10 years to help this person get off the street and deal with other health issues.”

Hugh Milroy, who served in the first Gulf War and is now CEO of UK charity Veterans Aid, believes veterans are actually “citizens-plus” in Britain, with the government as well as 3,000 charities offering support. He worries that too much focus on the homelessness issue may brand veterans as victims.

He agrees the situation is tougher in the United States, in part because of the absence of universal health care and a strong social safety net.

Denmark’s support for its returnees is not as pronounced as in some other countries, according to street newspaper Hus Forbi. The Ministry of Defence there puts returning soldiers through a three-month acclimatization program. Six months after their return, they are asked to fill out a questionnaire. One-third of veterans never reply.

Donovan of the National Coalition for the Homeless in the United States says the increases in funding under the Obama administration will inevitably reduce the number of veterans on the streets, but he worries Congress may turn its attention elsewhere once the United States has withdrawn from Iraq.

“We’re a country suffering from ADD. and when we aren’t at war we’re going to stop thinking about veterans and we’re going to think about something else,” Donovan said.

The key, he said, is ensuring that enough permanent housing is built via programs like the VA’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, where veterans get vouchers for housing organized by local housing authorities in the United States.

“It reminds me of antibiotics,” Donovan said. “If you give somebody two doses the first day and another dose and another dose and all of a sudden they start feeling better and you don’t give them the last three days, what happens? The person’s going to get sick again and when it comes back, it’s going to be medically resistant, it’s going to be treatment-resistant. That’s what happens with these populations. You don’t solve the problem. You pour tons of money into it, you pay attention to it, but you don’t solve the problem and it becomes socially resistant.”

Additional reporting by Joanne Zuhl/Street Roots, Portland; Yvonne Robertson/Megaphone Canada; Adam Forrest/The Big Issue UK; Simon Ankjærgaard/Hus Forbi and Danielle Batist/Street News Service.

A troubling trend, worldwide

In the past year, street papers across Europe and America reported on the struggle ex-soldiers face when they return to civilian life. Following service in Iraq and Afghanistan, both post-traumatic stress and the global recession increase the risk of veterans ending up on the streets. With support from Reuters journalist Sarah Edmonds, The Street News Service and its participating street papers produced this Special Report.

A survey conducted by the International Network of Street Papers in June 2011 showed that a quarter of street papers in the network have seen an increase in the number of homeless war veterans in their cities in the last two years.

At some street papers, more than 30 percent of vendors report prior military service. The numbers are highest in the United States and Canada, but street papers across Western Europe also work with vendors who served in the army. The legacy of war in the Balkans accounts for many homeless veterans in Eastern Europe, some of whom now work as street paper vendors in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Croatia, Slovenia and Ukraine. South Korea’s street paper registered 74 veterans as vendors in the past two years alone.

Read Street Roots editorial on veterans here.

One response to “A long way from home: Soldiers return from the battlefields

  1. Yes, coming home physically is one thing. Arriving home mentally is a long journey. The combat mind set is not easily shut down. Training men to be soldiers – 24/7 and then thinking you can just return them to “normal” civilian life and expect them to fit in, is a crazy idea!
    The mind, body and spirit need to be healed. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine. I have created a program called Act-Resilient which uses comedy, laughter and emotional flexibility training to restore the mind of the soldier. It has been presented to over 3,000 soldiers and they tell me Act Resilient was the most helpful process to make them feel whole again. For more information, please visit http://www.Act-Resilient.org. Many of the programs are free to service members, vets and families

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