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Back From Iraq

by Joshua Brustein, Mar 19, 2006
 

Faced with homelessness, about forty veterans call Jason Ortiz each month looking for help. Ortiz is a caseworker at New Era Veterans, a residence for previously homeless veterans in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Most of the residents there left the military decades ago, Ortiz says. But recently about five of the 40 calls he gets every month are from veterans returning from Iraq.

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Ortiz's voicemail has the same discouraging message for all those who dial his number: There is no more room.

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It has been three years since the beginning of the current war in Iraq; it began March 19th, 2003. Thirty-five New York City residents have died there since then, and thousands more have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan and returned. Another 8,000 New Yorkers remain on active military duty. As they come home, some are suffering from physical wounds, emotional trauma, financial insecurity, and homelessness.

There are services that address these problems, but many feel they are inadequate. Whether they are or not, many veterans couldn't say, because they don't seek out what's available to them.

"We've been trained that asking for help is an admission that you've failed in some task," said Ricardo Singh of Black Veterans for Social Justice, a veteran himself. "Veterans as a group are usually very reluctant to ask for help."

TRAUMA

Soon after 9/11, Brooklyn native Henry Gomez, who was then 29 years old with a family of his own, quit his job as a computer consultant and joined the army, bringing his wife, his daughter and stepdaughter to an army base in Germany. There he was trained to operate anti-ballistic missile radar systems. In April 2003, Gomez arrived in Iraq. He spent the next 13 months in firefights with insurgents, guarding checkpoints, and checking the roads surrounding Baghdad for bombs.

War was difficult at first, said Gomez, but within a few months he had gotten used to combat. "You hear an explosion near you," he explained recently, "and it doesn't bother you anymore."

It has been almost a year since Gomez came back from Iraq, however, and he still has not gotten used to civilian life. His relationship with his family has suffered -- he is estranged from his wife and doesn't see his kids -- and he has been unable to hold a job.

"The whole thing was the worst experience I had ever been through," Gomez said. "Coming back,I found I was different."

Gomez may have had a harder time adjusting than many other veterans. But he is also something of an exception in another way; he asked for help. He was diagnosed and treated for post traumatic stress disorder at a Veterans Administration hospital, and sought assistance in finding housing from a private homelessness prevention group, Common Ground.

If each war has a signature illness, say veterans advocates, Iraq's is post traumatic stress disorder.

In Iraq, the constant threat of guerilla warfare means that soldiers can never relax. There is uncertainty about the length of tours of duty, and about whether soldiers leaving Iraq will have to return. All of these things make this war particularly trying emotionally.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one in five servicemen and women returning from Iraq suffer from psychological conditions. (The rate of Afghan veterans suffering from similar conditions is about one in nine). Veterans' advocates believe the actual number is even higher.

The idea that engaging in combat is damaging to one’s psyche is hardly new – soldiers have long been known to suffer from “shell shock” and “combat fatigue”. But Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not defined as a specific medical condition until the Vietnam War. The Veterans Administration admits that it has not handled the psychological problems of past veterans well. It says it had learned it must focus on these problems, noting that it now spends $50 million annually nationwide on post-traumatic stress programs.

A federal report published last year (in pdf format), however, found that the Veterans Administration had not fully completed any of the 24 tasks that its own committee on post-traumatic stress disorder has recommended to improve clinical and education programs for returning veterans. The administration's committee also found that it was not prepared to handle an influx of new military veterans while maintaining services for those it is already caring for.

The veterans' hospital in the Bronx is seeing this influx: there has been such an increase psychological cases that its post-traumatic stress clinic is adding two psychologists to its eight person staff. Private veterans service organizations also say they are increasing numbers of veterans with such problems. But Rachel Yehuda, the director of the Bronx hospital's clinic, is frustrated that not everyone who needs help is asking for it.

"There's a significant number of Iraqi war veterans that are seeking treatment, though I suspect that it's not nearly as many as are in need," she said. "Not everybody comes home and rushes to a VA."

It was months before Gomez showed up at the Brooklyn veterans' hospital. Surprisingly, said a hospital spokesperson, he is one of only 69 recent veterans who have sought treatment. The Brooklyn and Manhattan veterans' hospitals say they have prepared for an influx of traumatized combat veterans, but to date only three percent of the 2,200 returning veterans who have registered for care at the two facilities have visited their post-traumatic stress clinics.

Critics of the Veterans Administration prod it to be more active in helping veterans -- making it easier for them to get the services they need, and even actively seeking them out. But in New York, advocates say, the federal government may actually soon make it harder for veterans to find care.

Like most health care providers, the Veterans Administration is facing financial difficulties. As a result, it is considering combining the services of the Manhattan and Brooklyn hospitals into a single facility. The Veterans Administration argues that it may make sense to close a hospital considering the amount of health care that now takes place in outpatient clinics, but others respond that closing facilities will only make it more likely that veterans' health problems will go untreated.

FINANCIAL INSECURITY

Veterans often come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This trend is continuing, according to the National Priorities Project, which found that in New York and across the country, residents of low-income counties make up a disproportionate amount of new military recruits.

While the pitch for joining the army includes references to job skills, skeptics point out that there isn't a strong civilian market for employees proficient in combat. Often, they say, veterans are unclear about how they will make a living after they are discharged. The military has long been criticized for failing to help veterans make this transition.

City officials are attempting to help veterans with the financial strain of returning to New York through housing programs. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his state of the city address that the city would offer significant preferences to veterans when the city resells homes that the federal government has foreclosed upon. There are already property tax exemptions for veterans and for the parents of servicemen and women who have been killed; Hiram Monserrate, the head of the City Council's veterans committee, has proposed a bill that would require the city to advertise this benefit more effectively.

Currently, the city's signature employment program is to give preferences to veterans who apply for street vendor licenses. Officials say that it also helps veterans with job placement through its general homelessness prevention programs. Common Ground, a homelessness prevention organization, is combining housing aid with counseling for emotional problems and employment assistance. Gomez recently turned to the group, which is helping him rent an apartment in Bensonhurst.

But the scope of private programs is limited; Common Ground has been able to serve only 21 veterans since it started its program last August. Advocates say the city should create veteran-specific programs that both lead them to federal veterans benefits and serve to help them find employment opportunities in New York.

"We should have some resources available – some, because right now we have none – to provide these services," said Monserrate.

HOMELESSNESS

Those seeking evidence that the country is failing to fulfill its obligation to veterans, say advocates, need only to look at the huge number of veterans that end up homeless.

While they make up about nine percent of the population, veterans constitute 23 percent of the chronically homeless population. Nationwide, there are 200,000 homeless veterans on any given night, and over half a million veterans spend some time homeless over the course of a year. Eighty percent of them live in urban areas, and over three quarters have mental health problems, substance abuse problems, or both.

According to the Veterans Administration, there are 44,700 homeless veterans in New York State. There are no exact numbers on how many of those live in New York City, but advocates estimate that the total is between 15,000 and 20,000.

Homelessness, said John Driscoll of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, is generally the end result of multiple problems spinning out of control. There is a connection between the lack of supportive services and homelessness, he said, but this is not obvious immediately. It was eight years after Vietnam, he said, before Vietnam veterans began turning up for homeless services in significant numbers.

About two percent of homeless veterans seeking services have served in post 9/11 conflicts, according to the coalition, and Driscoll and other veterans advocates say it is too early to see recent veterans becoming homeless in large numbers. But they worry that the lack of visible evidence of a serious problem will make it hard to address the issues that cause veterans to become homeless today.

"You have all these veterans being created by this new war," said Ruth Shaffer of New Era Veterans, "and every indication is that they are at least as disturbed – if not more – than those from before."

 


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