On Christmas weekend, Bob Woodruff of ABC News presented a report on homeless veterans, and cited the statistic that on any given day, 107,000 vets are homeless (including 9,000 from Iraq and Afghanistan). Women vets are homeless at twice the rate of men, proportionate to their total numbers. (Unfortunately, Woodruff repeats the old story of how Vietnam veterans were spat upon by civilians when they returned, an urban myth which Jerry Lembcke wrote an entire book to disprove, but these news guys keep perpetuating it anyway.)
Last time, we talked about the dispute over the exact number of people experiencing homelessness who are also military veterans. We understand that exactness in numbers is desirable for writing reports and apportioning tax dollars. Nobody here is anti-numbers. But it’s vital to remember that debating (or quibbling) over numbers can easily become an end in itself, and it can drain energy from our good intentions. We end up merely quantifying the world rather than changing it. We quoted Mary Cunningham of the Urban Institute, who said,
In general, it’s important to remember that there are far too many homeless who are veterans.
And there it is: Far. Too. Many. Thirty-three percent is too many, 23% is too many, 13% is too many, and 3% is too many.
Following are two messages for the two extreme types of Americans, and anybody else who is reading along can extrapolate themselves in between, wherever it’s appropriate.
Message #1 is for the enthusiastic patriot who fully endorses every military adventure the U.S. has ever involved itself in, who believes in maintaining military superiority and supporting the troops. This person is happy to know that U.S. military spending is more than the entire rest of the world combined.
Here’s the message: You, more than anybody, ought to be out there making sure the government keeps its promises to veterans. If you love seeing the red-white-&-blue flying over landscapes, how can you lose sight of the fact that these are the people who make it happen? Veterans are the ones who went to some miserable place and got wounded in various ways, and watched their friends fall victim to horrible fates. We won’t go into it all here, but the saying “War is hell” came into being for a reason.
So, never mind the yellow ribbons and the bumper stickers. Do something concrete. Support the troops by making sure they get everything they need once they are back in America. And that includes government recognition and acknowledgement of mysterious ailments caused by exposure to defoliants and depleted uranium, and whatever else was in the arsenal that was supposed to defeat the enemy, and defeated our own troops instead by making them sick.
People who are in favor of the military culture should not even need to be reminded that every veteran deserves the very best that the country can do for him or her. Now, the harder sell.
Message #2 is for the peace lovers who mistrust and resent every vestige of militarism. Here’s the message: It is possible to hate war and not hate veterans. Just because they wore a uniform, they do not deserve to be homeless pariahs. Some of them didn’t even go voluntarily. There are still Vietnam-era veterans around, including plenty of draftees.
People enlist for many different reasons. Some are idealists, whose beliefs about creating a good world are just as sincere as your own. Some joined up hoping for job training that would be applicable in civilian life, and weren’t taught anything except an obscure skill useful only to the military. Why blame them? They got screwed twice. No skill usable on the outside, plus they got so messed up, one way or another, that they couldn’t hold a job if somebody had offered them one.
Who knows what recruiters are promising these days, but there was a time when a stint in the military looked quite attractive to an awful lot of people, for a multitude of reasons. It might have been the only way out from an intolerable home situation. If a boy’s father made drill sergeants seem warm and cuddly by comparison, the Army was an acceptable escape. And to parentless kids who age out of group homes or foster care, in many cases the security offered by another institution, even the army, could look pretty good.
Whether or not one personally agrees, it is a fact that many a judge has offered a juvenile delinquent the choice between enlistment and jail. A lot of people ended up in the military that way. Not because they wanted to slaughter foreigners, but because they didn’t want to be locked up or acquire a criminal record. I knew a guy who joined up because his parents raided his college fund to buy his brother an expensive toy. That left the G. I. Bill as his only hope for pursuing higher education. He didn’t want to go kill babies. He wanted to get a degree.
Here’s one for the spiritual descendents of hippies and flower children. Often, the most gentle and tender-hearted of the recruits become the veterans with the most severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They couldn’t successfully be turned into the kind of people who can stomach doing the things that soldiers sometimes do. They came back and went all dysfunctional. They need treatment, and if they can’t get it, they at least need some compassion and a new pair of socks now and then. Anybody who cracked up because he or she didn’t “have what it takes” to enjoy being a professional soldier is a person worth saving.
Moving on to libertarians, the attitude about militarism varies, but one thing is clear: Since World War II, every conflict we’ve been involved in was undertaken without a constitutionally-mandated declaration of war. Still, it isn’t the veterans’ fault. Probably any libertarian would agree that any contract made by a government with a member of its armed services should definitely be lived up to by that government.
Currently, many libertarians are angry because the federal government is profiling Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans as potential terrorists. No kidding. Here is Paul Joseph Watson on the subject:
The government seems to be obsessed with targeting disgruntled veterans with pre-crime and other unconstitutional forms of surveillance, demonization and harassment… The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Mind Machine Project… is primarily aimed at weeding out ‘troubled veterans’ who may be planning to commit terrorist bombings or political assassinations, by illegally wiretapping their phone calls and Internet communications in order to build psychological profiles.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum or what your feelings are about war and the military, every last American has sufficient reasons to be incensed about the homeless veterans, and ought to be.
Source: “Fighting Abroad, Homeless at Home — ABC News,” ABC News, 12/26/10
Source: “Spitting on the Troops: Old Myth, New Rumors,” VVAW.org
Source: “Veterans commission representative says one in three homeless men is a veteran,” PolitiFact.com, 01/10/11
Source: “Feds Use Pre-Crime To Target Disgruntled Veterans,” MilitantLibertarian.org, 10/01/10
Image by Basterous, used under its Creative Commons license.
Out of all Americans currently experiencing homelessness, some say that one in four is a veteran. Richard R. Troxell says it’s more like one in three, going by the figures gleaned by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, namely, 28-33%. And, out of that number, more than half are black or Hispanic. So, on top of being a general societal problem, it’s also a race issue.
Despite the best efforts of those who want to help house the homeless, these statistics are rather difficult to keep track of. Many homeless people have learned from hard experience that it’s a good idea to steer clear of any official types, no matter how benign they appear. Some of these folks probably don’t even know themselves who or where they are.
This week, some homeless veterans are getting help, as journalist Melissa Murphy reports from the ninth annual Veterans Stand Down in Dixon, California. The three-day North Bay Stand Down is a yearly event that does its best to provide vets with medical and legal help, along with jackets, underwear, sleeping bags, hygiene kits, boots, and other tangible goods.
The clothing and equipment are either government surplus or bought with grant money. Personnel from Health and Social Services are present, as well as the representatives from Employment Development. Substance-abuse counselors and legal aid people are also available to provide help. A valid ID is always a handy thing to have, and the Department of Motor Vehicles is on hand to facilitate that.
Volunteers from Travis Air Force base set up tents to house the visitors and the various activities. Even live entertainment by the Timebandits is part of the package, along with showers and hot meals.
The organizers expect attendance from the 250 individuals who have registered, with probably another hundred arriving unannounced. Most participants are bused in from the five surrounding counties, and most are in their late forties or early fifties. Murphy interviewed Patrick Stasio, executive director of the Stand Down board, who said,
They come home and there is no wind down time for them. They’re physically here, but their mind is still in the combat area. It’s hard for them to adjust. They’re not the same person when they come home.
Back in August, Aaron Glantz of the New American Media wrote about another California Stand Down, this one in Pleasanton, on the grounds of the Alameda County Fair. Glantz has published two books on the Iraq war, and has collaborated with veterans on the book titled Winter soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations. The Pleasanton event drew more than 400 Americans who needed help to turn their lives around, including a break from the legal system. Glantz wrote,
A group of veterans stayed in camouflage canvas tents, met with employment counselors and even made their case to superior court judges, who prescribed modest penalties in exchange for dropping charges related to failed appearances on old warrants. Such warrants often started as unpaid traffic tickets, but the charges escalated as they were ignored.
The reporter talked with a former burn-unit medic who had worked extensively with Vietnam veterans. After a prison term, he hooked up with the Homeless Veteran Rehabilitation Program, which he credits with saving his life. This man had just had his resumé typed, which was stored on a flash drive and tied around his neck on a string for safekeeping.
There are about 400 “transitional housing beds” available in California, which has an estimated 12,000 homeless veterans. That’s about 30 in need, for every one existing accommodation.
Earlier this month, Eric K. Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, announced nearly $42 million in government grant money, which is supposed to supply additional space. According to the press release,
The $41.9 million is broken into two categories. About $26.9 million will help renovate, rehabilitate or acquire space for 1,352 transitional housing beds. A second group of awards, valued at $15 million, will immediately fund 1,216 beds at existing transitional housing for homeless Veterans this year.
About half of all veterans on the streets had served during the Vietnam era, a particularly damaging war in terms of long-term psychological effects on its participants. When idealistic young people enlist, hoping to serve their country, they’re thinking a three- or four-year hitch. Some end up staying in for a full 20, but very, very few of our youth sign up expecting that the consequences of their stretch in the military will be lifelong, consigning them to wandering, hunger, and neglect.
And maybe it doesn’t have to be forever. It’s wonderful that caring people put together the Veterans Stand Down, but no matter how wonderful, it’s only a bandaid on a gaping societal wound. Richard R. Troxell believes the Universal Living Wage could fix that. Here’s looking forward to the day when there is no longer any need for the Veterans Stand Down.
Source: “Dixon ‘Stand Down’ draws homeless veterans in need,” Daily Democrat Online, 10/13/10
Source: “Standing Up for Homeless Vets at ‘Stand Downs’,” New American Media, 08/18/10
Source: “Secretary Shinseki Announces $41.9 Million to Help the Homeless,” Dept. of Government Affairs, 10/01/10
Image by yummyporky (Vera Yu and David Li), used under its Creative Commons license.