17 Apr 2014

US veterans: returning soldiers now battling homelessness

Tens of thousands of US troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, but many are finding their return home is less than heroic, and the substantial number of veterans facing homelessness is on the rise.

Sergeant Randy Vaccaro is what most Americans would describe as a hero.

As a US Marine, he did three combat tours in Iraq. During one, he said he was facing attack every day, small arms and Improvised Explosive Devices. He saw two of his closest friends die in front of him during one firefight in Fallujah.

Afghan veteran Sergeant Randy Vaccaro (ITN)

But now, almost three years on from the US troop withdrawal from Iraq, Randy and tens of thousands of his comrades from that war and America’s other 21st century conflict – Afghanistan – find themselves home. But homeless.

An estimated 48,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were homeless in 2013, according to figures from the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Although homelessness among military veterans in general is in decline – down by a quarter in the last four years – the current generation of combat veterans are finding themselves homeless at a rising rate.

We met Randy Vaccaro at the Veterans Village of San Diego.

Yes, an entire village created in 1981 to serve the men and women who served their country, and now can’t find their place in it.

Sgt Vaccaro describes vividly the difficulty in adjusting to civilian life after being part of such fierce combat for so long. “You basically get asked a couple of questions, then you’re kicked back out,” he says. “I call that post-deployment mayhem.”

The first job he could get after leaving the Marine Corps was as a gravedigger. He admits it was probably not a good job for him to be doing while trying to recover from being at war.

He then moved to Las Vegas, but he soon realised he was suffering from PTSD. He had a security job, but found it hard to make it into work, lost his apartment and “couch-surfed” for several months. He spent some time in a psychiatric ward run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, but eventually found a room at the Veterans Village of San Diego.

Complex problems

The Veterans Village hosts 515 homeless veterans from all over the United States. Thirty percent of them are post-9/11 veterans.

Its president and CEO, Phil Landis, a veteran himself, told us more than half of their population come from somewhere outside California. It was set up in 1981 by a group of Vietnam veterans, struggling with their own problems after a long deployment to an unpopular war – injury, post-combat stress, drug use. The Village offers an almost unique combination of psychological and physical treatment, individualised for each veteran.

Those are still the focus of the village, although now Landis says the incidence of traumatic brain injuries is much higher. “In previous conflicts, someone injured so severely didn’t survive,” he says. “This is now something new we are dealing with that adds complexity to the ability of these young men and women to reorient themselves back into society.”

It’s very hard to stay afloat when you have so much wrong with you Lance Corporal Jeremy Thomas

The most common story behind each of these homeless veterans is one of psychological trauma, combined with a tough economic climate that means there are fewer jobs for them when they return: “Some have enormous issues with relationships, with trauma which causes perhaps abuse of alcohol and drugs, they can’t get a job – we’re in very difficult economic times right now. They act out, they wind up in jail.”

Another Marine Corps veteran living in the Veterans Village agreed to tell us about his descent into drug use that led to the break-up of his relationship.

Lance Corporal Jeremy Thomas was struck by an IED in Afghanistan. He lost a hand, ruptured an artery, broke his foot, and had shrapnel wounds all over his legs. He suffered countless surgeries and was heavily medicated for the best part of a year.

He thinks this masked PTSD and depression. “I started self-medicating with drugs to deal with all those mental disorders and the pain I had,” he told us. “It’s very hard to stay afloat when you have so much wrong with you.”

Further north in Los Angeles, we went out on the streets with Reggie Holmes, an outreach worker with a homeless charity called PATH – People Assisting The Homeless.

Tough sleepers

He goes out to try to find the most vulnerable of North Hollywood’s rough sleepers and get them as much help as possible. They’ve helped to house thousands of homeless across Los Angeles, and he says many of them are veterans.

Just a week before we met him, Reggie had to identify the body of a homeless veteran who had died on the street. But he told us one of the big challenges is that many veterans – especially those most recently in combat – do not ask for help, and regularly refuse it when it’s offered to them. He says there is a lot of help for recent vets, but the difficulty is finding them. Men who are used to surviving in the harshest of conditions find it easy to blend in on the streets of LA.

Reggie pointed out a shelter on his patch that was almost exclusively for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is run by Volunteers of America, and its manager Jim Zenner is himself a veteran of the Iraq war. He invited us in and showed us around. He confirmed the same pattern – a generation of young men returning from bloody conflict, struggling to deal with psychological and physical scars of war. He says alcohol and drugs are often used do dull the memories of combat and to try to relax.

Jim’s father was a veteran of the Vietnam war, and thinks the lesson of his father’s generation was to look after those troubled returning veterans. “I have a deep profound interest in seeing these guys get help… they deserve to have a happy life, after what they did, what we did together.”

Growing problem

Many of the veterans we spoke to described a feeling of having backs turned on them by the authorities when they came home.

Even with a budget rising to a whopping $164bn, the government’s Department of Veterans Affairs has a mammoth task ahead of it, as it aims to end veteran homelessness by 2015.

Phil Landis of the Veterans Village of San Diego says the numbers will only rise, as the withdrawal in Afghanistan accelerates towards the end of this year, and more and more men and women return to their home shores.

“I think that there’s a sense that there’s very few of us out here pulling the wagon. In this country less than one per cent of the population has been responsible for this whole burden of both of these wars – that’s wrong. So you create almost a separate segment of society who are the guardians of the gate, and the other 99 per cent are the recipients of everything that they do.”