Friday, July 07, 2006

Homeless Vet Stories - Grains of Salt Required

Just after the 4th of July, this story about homeless Iraq/GWOT veterans appeared in the local paper. Y'know, just in case we were feeling too good about our country after our nation's birthday.

It's frustrating to read articles like this, because it's clear that the journalist (a) has no military experience, (b) fully expects that this is par for the course in the military, and (c) wants to further develop the idea that military people are victims who have no responsibility for anything that happens in their lives - and are, in fact, completely incompetent to exert responsibility even if they wanted to.

A more competent reporter would have asked questions like, "What does your Platoon Leader/Commanding Officer/Sergeant think about your situation? What about the Commanding Officer of the Reserve Center you drill with? What about the VA? The Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society? Your Congressman?" And then the competent reporter would have had the courtesy to actually call a military official in the know and ask them about what services they do and do not provide.

The military has never in the history of the nation been better about taking care of soldiers returning home from service than it is today. Destitute World War I soldiers marched on Washington, setting up camp to demand promised benefits they literally needed to survive. For their efforts, they were shot at, first by police, and then attacked by military forces. WWII vets were treated better, but in a time where mental illness and PTSD were seen as merely being weak, plenty of them failed to successfully reintegrate into society without anyone saying the war effort was wrong. Vietnam vets, despite the false popular image of them as depressed, drug addled failures torn by guilt over acting like "Jen-jis Kahn," have fared as well or better than the general population. Since then, programs and services, both public and private, have only gotten better.

We as a nation have gotten and continue to get better in the way we treat vets, and that's a good thing. But we need to take some care to be honest about what the problems actually are, and what we should expect of people when it comes to expending a little effort to ensure they get the benefits they deserve.

I spent two years working at a Naval Reserve Center before I started law school in 2004, the last six months of which was as the Commanding Officer. I can assure anyone that plenty of services are available to people who are having a hard time transitioning. There are dozens of people to whom demobilizing vets can turn if they are having a difficult time accessing those services. Here's an example.

One of my people, a senior enlisted sailor who frankly should have known better, was mobilized for a period of time in 2003. He was a cop in his civilian life. Just before he demobilized, he injured his ankle. During the demobilization process, the record of his injury didn't get from the active duty command he was supporting to the Naval Reserve folks processing him out, and he didn't bother to tell them he had hurt himself - he just assumed they knew or would find out eventually. He didn't inform his reserve unit or my own medical staff that he had any issues.

Instead, he showed up for work and told them he couldn't do his job, and applied for medical bennies through his civilian employer. His claim was denied, because they rightly told him that the Navy needed to pay for that care. Still, he never informed us of the problem, apparently assuming we were just handling it. I didn't find out about it until he came in nearly a month later asking me to sign a letter so he could get food stamps. One phone call to any one of half a dozen people at any point in that last month would have gotten him the care he needed, and he could have easily avoided the financial situation he found himself in. That's not too much to ask of anyone, veteran or not. The US Military and the VA are enormous and inefficient bureaucracies (often made larger and usually more cumbersome when well meaning politicians try to "support the troops").

As soon as we did find out, we dropped everything to get him what he needed, which by then was harder because of the time that had lapsed. Of course, that didn't stop him from going to a town hall meeting with one of our Senators and telling his tale of woe about how the country he served wasn't serving him, which was then dutifully picked up by the local media. I never did see a follow up story when he got the care he needed, although if there had been, the media surely would have taken credit for it, falsely assuming it wouldn't have happened without them.

Our veneration for veterans in this country, while proper, sometimes spills over to sacred cow status, which is improper. Conservatives are often the worst about this, frankly.

Veterans are well trained and well educated adult Americans who, while they deserve to be treated respectfully and well and shouldn't have to jump through 5 million hoops to obtain promised benefits, also have a responsibility to, at the very least, keep their chain of command informed about issues that they might have. They also have a responsibility not to marry their girlfriend of 2 months just prior to deployment, or worse, give them a durable power of attorney and access to all of their bank accounts. They have a responsibility to actively look for a job upon return, and contact their VA, VFW, or USERRA rep if they're having a difficult time getting work or if their employer violates federal law by not rehiring them. They have a responsibility not to do drugs.

It's never perfect and often frustrating. Pay issues do happen, and can be crippling. National Guard and Reserve forces are much worse about ensuring a smooth transition home than the active duty side, although it is a HUGE focus of the senior leadership of all the services now. Mental health issues are still inadequately addressed.

But I will go out on a limb and say that no veteran is actually homeless without a significant pattern of poor choices on behalf of the veteran him or herself.

I would be curious to see how many of those homeless vets were kicked out when the military got tough on drugs in the service. I'd be curious to know how veteran status is verified by the keepers of those statistics. Every roadside panhandler claims to be a vet because it increases the sympathy factor and generates more cash - I hope they aren't simply taken at their word.

Sometimes our vets are not treated as well as they deserve to be by the Nation that they served. But it's the rare exception, not the rule. And when it does happen, it takes more than that to lead to homelessness. The stories that appear in local, liberal media are quite simply not telling the story of these people completely or accurately.

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