Homeless Veterans

About a third of the adult homeless population has served their country in the armed services. On any given night, as many as 250,000 veterans are living on the streets or in shelters, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness over the course of a year. Many other veterans are considered at risk because of their poverty, lack of support from family and friends, and precarious living conditions in cheap hotels or in overcrowded or substandard housing.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conservatively estimate that approximately one-third of America's homeless are veterans. Nearly 58% of the homeless veteran population are from the Vietnam era and 25% are veterans that have served since the Vietnam War. Almost all homeless veterans are male (about two percent are female), and the vast majority are single.

Homeless veterans tend to be older and more educated than homeless non-veterans. But similar to the general population of homeless adult males, about 40% of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness and (with considerable overlap) slightly more than half suffer from alcohol or other drug abuse problems. About 10% suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Roughly 57% are African-American or Hispanic.



Veterans in Prison


Our Boys in Uniformity

They have made and are making the ultimate sacrifice... Their life was changed when as mere boys they were transformed into soldiers. They went to war. And when that living, maiming and dying nightmare was over they were abruptly brought back into America's main-stream society to resume the life that they had begun. But there was a problem: Once, at a certain moment while in Vietnam, or France or Okinawa, their mind and thinking processes evolved into a bestial survival mode. This is how they made it through every moment, every day until their tour of duty was over.

And now it was too late to recapture that fresh, youthful spirit they had once possessed. Though some were, to all outward appearances, able to resume a civilian life none of them could ever forget their war, their dark experience. In medical or psychological terms, they had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Four simple words to describe the unimaginable fears, regrets and memories of a period in their lives that they would all give their right arms to be rid of.

So here they were, back with families, old friends, old home towns... back "in country". Hip hip hooray!

Home towns whose people either honored them for a few days, or conversely, spit on them if their cause was the great anti-war movement that was winding down. Friends who the veterans realized, were no where close to being like their buddys. Buddys who had become an integral part of their war-life. Buddys who would and often did, lay down their lives for them, their life's blood pouring onto the ground, the sight fading from their eyes and finally becoming forever still. Families... families loved and loving, but not understanding the change that had come over their son or brother. He was different. They had expected him to be different of course, but this was a mysterious change, one that they could not fathom from their own experience and understanding. Because it was not of this world. This difference was brought on by a time, a place and a trauma that was not of this peaceful world, or of anything we could or did imagine.

This feeling, this indelible horror, was not to be erased. It was still so real in the mind as to make the veteran's physical life dream-like. It was comparable to wanting something very badly and then finally when that need was realized and came true, it was as if it was not real, just a dream, and when he awoke he would be back in that dark time.

Imagine yourself with your sweetheart under a big shade tree on a grassy hill just outside your hometown--- a beautiful, warm summer day with everything going right and you feel happy and content. Then suddenly you are brutally kicked awake in your foxhole by an officer urging you to "get your ass moving shithead.....". Does this sound a bit like "Twilight Zone"? Science fiction? No, make no mistake, this is real to a veteran, a constant fear of returning to what was unspeakable. And to many veterans they return there every night.

So here he is, the hero, the coward, the ex-soldier. In a world that has skipped a beat and left him out of sync.He cannot possibly survive emotionally without support, and if he is lucky enough to have a friend who was once somebody's buddy "over there", he can make it. But if not......

Here he is.... a seemingly oddball outcast and homeless, jobless or in prison. A prison of his own in his mind, or in a real prison because he turned to pills, pot or hard drugs to ease his pain. This isn't right, is it? ........ Ask yourself honestly... is it right?

Yes, we say "Yeah that's too bad." or "He didn't have to get himself in this predicament". Tell yourself he had alternatives, he could have gotten help. Tell yourself he wasn't forgotten. Convince yourself that soldiers are all the same... tough, gritty and self reliant. Tell almost anyone who never served and they'll agree.

If soldiers are tough, and trained for survival while accomplishing their mission, ask this: why are they in prison? Why are 400,000 veterans incarcerated?

The answers are these: (1) Our country's courts do not take into account the mitigating circumstances that should be part of a person's defense. We expect this? In a system that is flooded with court cases and the prison industry is thriving? Come on people, can we honestly believe that? (2) The Three Strikes Laws and severe penalties for minor drug offenses such as marijuana use are hugely responsible for sending minor-offenders to prison, and especially young people unable to cope and veterans, who are caught in the web of self-destruction because they are alone in a world they defended but can't seem to live in. (3) Sadly, we the people who let the soldiers do our fighting, and now feel secure in our ordinary lives, just don't care enough to take any risks changing the system!

As for you hard cases out there who believe the hard way is the best way for criminals, who say "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime" and all those old weak excuses for taking the easy way out, I want you to hear me... I'm sick of crime too and I believe in punishment for law-breakers. There is no place in any peaceful society for people who commit violence and crimes against fellow human beings. I strongly support the removal of such criminals from any freedom to continue breaking the law. On the other hand you hard cases are not above speaking out against compassion, rehabilitation and law reform, so this makes you a criminal. You are criminal because your opinions and actions are detrimental to a healthy society of people who care what happens to others. You are a minority who seek to influence others with your self-gratifying, spineless, easy-way solutions. You are the real outcasts to my way of thinking. You haven't paid your dues but you're a member in good standing... in your mind. However, the veteran has paid his dues. He's paid dearly, and is paying right now in the most shocking way. But membership is restricted it seems, .... or declined because they see the strong union of government and the corporations and it is not to their liking. They see how the laws have changed to weed out the misfits and the undesirable elements by prosecuting with extreme predjudice, by imprisonment of victims along with the criminals.

To be fair to the "get tough" opposition, we must own up to the fact that not all veterans in prison are victims. On the contrary, some are as cruel, violent and antisocial as the next robber/rapist/murderer in the next cell. And maybe to such people, Vietnam was a picnic. But no matter... We are talking about the victims here and only them. Let's be fair and set up our laws to cull out the victims. If our laws are fair and just why must I wonder when I see kids who bought stolen car parts serving thirty years, next to a heroine dealer who got 10 to 20?

If we are to survive as a nation that practices true justice then we must indeed do some weeding out. Let us begin by sorting out what is right and wrong in this world. For it really isn't our world... we are just assistant managers assigned by God in his world. Free will has given us choices. Let's start making the right ones.

The right choices in a good conscience are the only choices. Nothing else will do.

So .... Do you see how everything comes together? I started this article with Veterans as the subject... and now the subject is you... and I. We are all in this together when it comes to the basic human rights of individuals, whether in prison or out, we are in the hands of either the guard or the guardian. Your choice....

These are not just opinions, folks. This is a part of history as written on our minds.

Arby O'Keefe