Friday, January 27, 2006

Vets in America's Urban Trenches

Twenty-six years after his turbulent experience in the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam, Timothy Buchanan became homeless. It’s been nearly 32 years of hardship and anguish for a man who left the United States and traveled 10,000 miles to fight for his country in one of the longest conflicts our nation has ever known.

Buchanan was exposed to the chemical Agent Orange on more than one occasion and has post traumatic stress disorder. He talks softly when he says, “I got peppered with that stuff (Agent Orange) over and over again.

“I’ve been pretty unstable, due to stress and the streets, for a long time. I’ve dealt with flashbacks and nightmares since I left that place. I just started to talk about my experiences in the mid-’90s, but now that I’m ready to let it all out, rarely do people want to listen.”

Looking out with eyes that have seen more trauma than any one person should have to see in a lifetime, Buchanan begins to tell a story hundreds of thousands of men and women, around the world, unfortunately, can relate to.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, estimates that nearly 300,000 veterans are homeless on any given night in the United States. In addition, more than a half-million veterans experience homelessness in a given year More than a dozen veterans are homeless or have experienced homelessness at street roots.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, there is a complex set of factors contributing to homelessness for U.S. veterans. A large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with the lingering effects of post- traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.

With an estimated half-million who experience homelessness in a given year, the VA estimates that it reaches only 20 percent of those in need, leaving more than 400,000 veterans without services.

According to the 2002 US Conference of Mayors, 1,368, 11 percent of the people living on the streets in Portland, were veterans. In another report, put out by Portland’s Bureau of Housing and Community Development, 182 were said to be emergency housed in the shelter system, bring the number to more than 1,500.

And the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports that the first veteran from the current conflict in Iraq has hit the streets in Boston.

“My gut instinct tells me that because of the economy and the lack of affordable housing, there will be a significant difference in the time veterans start becoming homeless, compared to Vietnam War veterans,” said Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

The average time between soldiers coming home from Vietnam and then becoming homeless is about 12 years, Boone said.

“The other factor that wasn’t there for Vietnam veterans that is there today is that more guardsmen and reserves are being called up that have families,” Boone said.

“Veterans are coming home much more abruptly than they did in Vietnam, it may be a lot harder to support your family with the economy the way it is,” she said. “We think there’s opportunities to prevent homelessness with veterans.” Prevention starts at the Department of Defense, according to Boone, but she said it’s just not happening.

Many homeless veterans and advocates in the field say veterans coming out of the military should be given the proper counseling and services needed to enter back into society.

“If they would have admitted the damage Agent Orange would have done to me and given me the proper therapy for being ‘on vacation’, if you know what I mean, than maybe I could have done better in this life.

“I went as crazy as a bed bug after seeing what I saw. I was awful sick when I got back to the states, but I was no longer under any impression that we were saving the world from communism. I thought by going to war I could prove myself to be a man. I was raised on that John Wayne bullshit, and that’s exactly what it is — bullshit.

“I think being homeless has a lot to do with my experience in Vietnam,” Buchanan said. “When I got back, the VA didn’t care about me. For years, I would go in to receive help and they would just call me a dope addict. I self-medicated because of the constant pain I was in.”

“I was hit four times by an AK in the first burst, and was hit once with friendly fire by the 2nd platoon as they came in from the rear. I got gangrene and then they cut my leg off a week later.

“We were chasing an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) regular into the bush in Cambodia. He popped up and fired and then took off running like the dickens,“ Buchanan said. “He led us right into an ambush and they nearly overran us. We had several skirmishes in the area. We overtook an NVA base camp and killed a hell of a lot of men.”

“The thing that has always bothered me about all of this is that I couldn’t help feeling like the Red Coats, ya know,” Buchanan said. “We weren’t protecting anybody from anything. We were the invaders and we didn’t have a cause. The only cause was survival for soldiers and that’s a dangerous circumstance to be in.

Buchanan went on to note that Ho Chi Min was promised a free election after World War II from his allies in the China-Burma-Pacific campaigns, but when it came to time for a free election, the French and the United States “spit in his face.”

“We had no chance of winning that war from the get go,” Buchanan said. “What happened was meant to happen. That’s what made it all seem so insane at the time. It’s been a long trip that’s for sure.”

According to the Indiana School of Medicine, during the Vietnam War, psychological breakdowns on the battlefield were as low as 12 per 1,000. But in 1973, when direct American troop involvement in Vietnam ended, the number of veterans with psychiatric disorders began to increase tremendously. They began to show symptoms such as intense anxiety, battle dreams, depression, and problems with interpersonal relationships long after their combatant role in the Vietnam War had ceased.

“Veterans on the streets range in ages from in their 20s up to people in there 60s in Portland,” said Don McDowell, a veterans case manager at Transition Projects. “Some get out of the service and have difficulty finding a job despite their military services.”

“In Portland there are adequate resources available to veterans, its just a matter of connecting the veterans to the services,” said McDowell. “The issue is there needs to be more stock in affordable housing. Oftentimes, veterans have pulled everything together, they’ve gotten a job, a decent wage, but then there isn’t housing available for people.

“Vets need guidance. They need a case manager to champion them and act as a resource for them,” said McDowell. “As long as they don’t start using and keep their job, they’ll make it. If they start using (drugs) again they go back to square one, and quickly they’ll go back to the streets.”

Some advocates believe that a more progressive system could be put into place to deal with substance abusers, especially for vets who may have come home with an addiction, like many did from Vietnam.

“You shouldn’t have a system that punishes vets on the streets for using,” said one advocate who declined to be named.

“It’s a system that punishes people who have seen horrific things or who may be in extreme pain for using a drug to self-medicate. It’s crooked and wrong. Who are we to say, ‘We’re very proud you went and risked your life for your country, but because you’re a user the punishments will be prison and homelessness.”

“We are seeing more Gulf War veterans on the streets in Portland,” says Don Hanson, a Vietnam vet and the career services coordinator with Central City Concern. “In some cases, Gulf War Syndrome is playing a part. Some were probably exposed to chemicals and the VA is recognizing that more and more. There are a lot of diseases attached to Vietnam and the Gulf War.”

Of the 697,000 U.S. troops who served during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, more than 100,000 have registered with the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Department of Defense, saying they have health concerns.

While most of these veterans have been diagnosed with a variety of conditions, more than 15,000, or about 20 percent of those examined, have undiagnosed symptoms, which commonly include fatigue, muscle and joint pains, headaches, memory loss, skin rash, diarrhea and sleep disturbances.

There’s no record of how many people are on the streets from the Persian Gulf War or any other conflict the United States has been involved in.

“There’s more and more people who are on the streets since the Vietnam era and that’s probably since some of us are dying out,” says Hanson.

Carl Roberts is a veteran of the Air Force of the Vietnam War era and was a member of the Oregon National Guard for 10 years, who served in Honduras during the Iran Contra affair. Roberts, like many other veterans street roots interviewed said alcohol and drugs were major factors in becoming homeless. What is overwhelmingly apparent while doing these interviews is that almost every veteran street roots spoke to developed an addiction for alcohol and drugs while in the military.

“I volunteered for the military when I was 17 years old,” says Roberts. “My mother was raising five kids and we didn’t have a lot of money.”

“It took me many years to understand what happened and the realization of the violence I had witnessed in the military. It took me 20 years just to come to the realization I was lovable, because of things I had experienced. I was just a puppet. The non-violent philosophy at Sisters of the Road has helped me learn how to respect myself.”

“They program you in the military,” Roberts went on to say. “They need services to de-program you when you leave, because you can’t just turn it off. It’s a healing process that should be supported by the VA. When a police officer shoots someone or sees something violent they put him on administrative leave for evaluations. When a person is involved in a violent interaction in the military, there’s no support network. When you’re back in society, it’s very hard to adapt.”

Published in December of 2003, Street Roots, Portland, Oregon

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