More Homeless Veterans Than Active Duty Soldiers in Iraq

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There are more veterans on the streets than there are soldiers currently deployed in Iraq.There are more homeless veterans in the United States than active-duty troops deployed in Iraq, including those deployed as part of the "surge."

"We are a nation that will keep its commitments to those who have risked their lives for our freedom," President Bush said last Veterans Day. He urged veterans to wear their medals that day, and Americans to walk up to them "and shake a hand and give a hug, and give a word of thanks." Would they do that with a homeless veteran? Would he?

Perhaps the exact route from service and possible combat abroad to streets, parks and bus stations back home is intractable. How the Army turns individuals into soldiers, what happens to soldiers in combat, and what the Army does to soldiers once they're discharged, isn't intractable at all. It reads like a blueprint for social dislocation.

To prepare soldiers for combat, the Army demolishes the individual and reconstructs him as a killing machine. It makes no secret about the method or the goal. That's what basic training is about. In combat zones, soldiers adapt to sets of rules that have a coherence all their own but no application in the civilian world…

     

What soldiers experience in combat is a life-changing experience severe enough that a third of soldiers returning from combat will develop mental-health issues such as post traumatic stress disorder, suicidal tendencies, and/or an inability to cope with the "normal" life they once knew, including family, friends, spouses. After so many years' experience with war zones and veterans (25 million as of 2006), you'd expect the Army to have developed the means and will to deal with its returning soldiers.

It hasn't. The Washington Post in February revealed how conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for soldiers being treated for wounds sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes have more in common with ramshackle facilities in third world countries than with what soldiers should expect from the nation's most important military hospital. Yet the physical and bureaucratic shoddiness exposed in February pales in comparison with the poor to nonexistent mental health care soldiers can expect, especially after they leave the service.

Once discharged, a soldier might as well not exist for the Army. No follow-up calls, no attempt to gauge what services or support the soldier might need. (The Army is only now focusing on those evaluations for soldiers returning from combat, but only while they're still in the service.) Despite spending $2.8 billion on mental health, the Department of Veterans Affairs has no consistent, scientifically based evaluation for post-traumatic stress disorder and, therefore, no consistent way of giving veterans the care they need. The VA has a backlog of 400,000 claims of all kinds and a proclivity for losing records. Thousands of claims that are processed are denied because of Byzantine requirements. For example, to qualify for PTSD compensation, a former soldier must have not only witnessed a traumatic event such as the death of a comrade or a roadside explosion, but must prove it, too.





It's not necessarily a positive experience when services are approved. The Army's licensed psychologists' ranks have dropped by a fifth in the last few years from the strain. Those who remain sometimes use therapies better suited for alcoholics or marital trouble than PTSD. The availability of counseling is a haphazard affair. And at least two Pentagon reports have called for an overhaul of the military's mental-health system. Homeless advocates are bracing themselves for a coming wave of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who no longer feel they belong and aren't finding the help to mend their way back.

The numbers, the lost lives and broken promises to veterans ought to be a national shame for a country so gushy with "Support Our Troops" rhetoric toward men and women who supposedly "live in honor among us, or sleep in valor beneath this sacred ground," as President Bush described them in a speech from Arlington National Cemetery last Veterans Day. That so many veterans end up in more proximity to gutters than honors shows to what extent the rhetoric is less than what it seems with its $2 yellow-ribbon stickers on the back of cars and a veterans' mental care system stuck in the middle of the last century.


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