Homeless Iraq vets showing up at shelters
Homeless Iraq vets showing up at shelters
By Mark Benjamin
UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL
Washington, DC, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- U.S. veterans from the
war in Iraq are beginning to show up at homeless
shelters around the country, and advocates fear they
are the leading edge of a new generation of homeless
vets not seen since the Vietnam era.
"When we already have people from Iraq on the streets,
my God," said Linda Boone, executive director of the
National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. "I have
talked to enough (shelters) to know we are getting
them. It is happening and this nation is not prepared
"I drove off in my truck. I packed my stuff. I lived
out of my truck for a while," Seabees Petty Officer
Luis Arellano, 34, said in a telephone interview from
a homeless shelter near March Air Force Base in
California run by U.S.VETS, the largest organization
in the country dedicated to helping homeless veterans.
Arellano said he lived out of his truck on and off for
three months after returning from Iraq in September
2003. "One day you have a home and the next day you
are on the streets," he said.
In Iraq, shrapnel nearly severed his left thumb. He
still has trouble moving it and shrapnel "still comes
out once in a while," Arellano said. He is left
Arellano said he felt pushed out of the military too
quickly after getting back from Iraq without medical
attention he needed for his hand -- and as he would
later learn, his mind.
"It was more of a rush. They put us in a warehouse for
a while. They treated us like cattle," Arellano said
about how the military treated him on his return to
the United States.
"It is all about numbers. Instead of getting quality
care, they were trying to get everybody demobilized
during a certain time frame. If you had a problem,
they said, 'Let the (Department of Veterans Affairs)
take care of it.'"
The Pentagon has acknowledged some early problems and
delays in treating soldiers returning from Iraq but
says the situation has been fixed.
A gunner's mate for 16 years, Arellano said he
adjusted after serving in the first Gulf War. But
after returning from Iraq, depression drove him to
leave his job at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission. He got divorced.
He said that after being quickly pushed out of the
military, he could not get help from the VA because of
"I felt, as well as others (that the military said)
'We can't take care of you on active duty.' We had to
sign an agreement that we would follow up with the
VA," said Arellano.
"When we got there, the VA was totally full. They
said, 'We'll call you.' But I developed depression."
He left his job and wandered for three months,
sometimes living in his truck.
Nearly 300,000 veterans are homeless on any given
night, and almost half served during the Vietnam era,
according to the Homeless Veterans coalition, a
consortium of community-based homeless-veteran service
providers. While some experts have questioned the
degree to which mental trauma from combat causes
homelessness, a large number of veterans live with the
long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder
and substance abuse, according to the coalition.
Some homeless-veteran advocates fear that similar
combat experiences in Vietnam and Iraq mean that these
first few homeless veterans from Iraq are the crest of
"This is what happened with the Vietnam vets. I went
to Vietnam," said John Keaveney, chief operating
officer of New Directions, a shelter and
drug-and-alcohol treatment program for veterans in Los
Angeles. That city has an estimated 27,000 homeless
veterans, the largest such population in the nation.
"It is like watching history being repeated," Keaveney
Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows
that as of last July, nearly 28,000 veterans from Iraq
sought health care from the VA. One out of every five
was diagnosed with a mental disorder, according to the
VA. An Army study in the New England Journal of
Medicine in July showed that 17 percent of service
members returning from Iraq met screening criteria for
major depression, generalized anxiety disorder or
Asked whether he might have PTSD, Arrellano, the
Seabees petty officer who lived out of his truck,
said: "I think I do, because I get nightmares. I still
remember one of the guys who was killed." He said he
gets $100 a month from the government for the wound to
Lance Cpl. James Claybon Brown Jr., 23, is staying at
a shelter run by U.S.VETS in Los Angeles. He fought in
Iraq for 6 months with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion,
2nd Marines and later in Afghanistan with another
unit. He said the fighting in Iraq was sometimes
"We were pretty much all over the place," Brown said.
"It was really heavy gunfire, supported by mortar and
tanks, the whole nine (yards)."
Brown acknowledged the mental stress of war,
particularly after Marines inadvertently killed
civilians at road blocks. He thinks his belief in God
helped him come home with a sound mind.
"We had a few situations where, I guess, people were
trying to get out of the country. They would come
right at us and they would not stop," Brown said. "We
had to open fire on them. It was really tough. A lot
of soldiers, like me, had trouble with that."
"That was the hardest part," Brown said. "Not only
were there men, but there were women and children --
really little children. There would be babies with
arms blown off. It was something hard to live with."
Brown said he got an honorable discharge with a good
conduct medal from the Marines in July and went home
to Dayton, Ohio. But he soon drifted west to
California "pretty much to start over," he said.
Brown said his experience with the VA was positive,
but he has struggled to find work and is staying with
U.S.VETS to save money. He said he might go back to
Advocates said seeing homeless veterans from Iraq
should cause alarm. Around one-fourth of all homeless
Americans are veterans, and more than 75 percent of
them have some sort of mental or substance abuse
problem, often PTSD, according to the Homeless
More troubling, experts said, is that mental problems
are emerging as a major casualty cluster, particularly
from the war in Iraq where the enemy is basically
everywhere and blends in with the civilian population,
and death can come from any direction at any time.
Interviews and visits to homeless shelters around the
Unites States show the number of homeless veterans
from Iraq or Afghanistan so far is limited. Of the
last 7,500 homeless veterans served by the VA, 50 had
served in Iraq. Keaveney, from New Directions in West
Los Angeles, said he is treating two homeless veterans
from the Army's elite Ranger battalion at his
location. U.S.VETS, the largest organization in the
country dedicated to helping homeless veterans, found
nine veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan in a quick
survey of nine shelters. Others, like the Maryland
Center for Veterans Education and Training in
Baltimore, said they do not currently have any
veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan in their 170 beds
set aside for emergency or transitional housing.
Peter Dougherty, director of Homeless Veterans
Programs at the VA, said services for veterans at risk
of becoming homeless have improved exponentially since
the Vietnam era. Over the past 30 years, the VA has
expanded from 170 hospitals, adding 850 clinics and
206 veteran centers with an increasing emphasis on
mental health. The VA also supports around 300
homeless veteran centers like the ones run by
U.S.VETS, a partially non-profit organization.
"You probably have close to 10 times the access points
for service than you did 30 years ago," Dougherty
said. "We may be catching a lot of these folks who are
coming back with mental illness or substance abuse"
before they become homeless in the first place.
Dougherty said the VA serves around 100,000 homeless
veterans each year.
But Boone's group says that nearly 500,000 veterans
are homeless at some point in any given year, so the
VA is only serving 20 percent of them.
Roslyn Hannibal-Booker, director of development at the
Maryland veterans center in Baltimore, said her
organization has begun to get inquiries from veterans
from Iraq and their worried families. "We are
preparing for Iraq," Hannibal-Booker said.