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Back from Iraq - and suddenly out on the streets

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Part of the reason for these new veterans' struggles is that housing costs have skyrocketed at the same time real wages have remained relatively stable, often putting rental prices out of reach. And for many, there is a gap of months, sometimes years, between when military benefits end and veterans benefits begin.

"We are very much committed to helping veterans coming back from this war," says Mr. Cameron, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of California. "But the [Department of Veterans Affairs] already has needs it can't meet and there's a lot of fear out there that programs are going to be cut even further."

Beyond the yellow ribbons

Both the Veterans Administration and private veterans service organizations are already stretched, providing services for veterans of previous conflicts. For instance, while an estimated 500,000 veterans were homeless at some time during 2004, the VA had the resources to tend to only 100,000 of them.

"You can have all of the yellow ribbons on cars that say 'Support Our Troops' that you want, but it's when they take off the uniform and transition back to civilian life that they need support the most," says Linda Boone, executive director of The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

After the Vietnam conflict, it was nine to 12 years before veterans began showing up at homeless shelters in large numbers. In part, that's because the trauma they experienced during combat took time to surface, according to one Vietnam veteran who's now a service provider. Doctors refer to the phenomenon as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that 15 to 17 percent of Iraq vets meet "the screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or PTSD." Of those, only 23 to 40 percent are seeking help - in part because so many others fear the stigma of having a mental disorder.

Many veterans' service providers say they're surprised to see so many Iraq veterans needing help so soon.

"This kind of inner city, urban guerrilla warfare that these veterans are facing probably accelerates mental-health problems," says Yogin Ricardo Singh, director of the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program at BVSJ. "And then there's the soldier's mentality: Asking for help is like saying, 'I've failed a mission.' It's very hard for them to do."

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