December 15, 2005

"Civilianizing" Is Savage Duty

Hatched by Sachi

A few days ago, I came across an article about homeless OIF veterans. I thought of blogging about it, but reading passages like these really bothered me:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- U.S. veterans from the war in Iraq are beginning to show up at homeless shelters around the country, and advocates fear they are the leading edge of a new generation of homeless vets not seen since the Vietnam era.

"When we already have people from Iraq on the streets, my God," said Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. "I have talked to enough (shelters) to know we are getting them. It is happening and this nation is not prepared for that...."

[Seabees Petty Officer Luis Arellano, 34] said that after being quickly pushed out of the military, he could not get help from the VA because of long delays.

"I felt, as well as others (that the military said) 'We can't take care of you on active duty.' We had to sign an agreement that we would follow up with the VA," said Arellano.

"When we got there, the VA was totally full. They said, 'We'll call you.' But I developed depression."

He left his job and wandered for three months, sometimes living in his truck.

That is why I was rather reluctant to discuss it. However, while I was looking for news about the Iraqi election, I came across Sgt. Ron Long's December 8th post. Sgt. Long was one of the ten soldiers who were interviewed by president Bush during the teleconference just before the October vote on the Iraqi constitution.

Sgt. Long served as an Army Combat Medic with the 278th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) in Iraq; he's now safely back in Tennessee. He writes that he is having some difficulties adjusting to a civilian life.

I will be the first to tell you that the transition from combat-life back to day-to-day civilian-life has been tougher than I had expected. The "small" things are the difference. I think that it may only be something that another combat veteran would be able to understand. Don't get me is great to be home, but it's just tough adjusting back into normal life. In combat, you tend to have to separate yourself from your emotions or feelings at the time and it may be hard to re-acquaint yourself with your emotions once your home, back with your family. I love my family more than words can describe but I have just pushed myself back into their lives; Lives and routines that they've been used to without a husband or a father. And it works both ways.

So maybe it's time to take a deep breath and take a sympathetic but dispassionate look at the problem.

It's difficult for a civilian like me to imagine what a soldier or Marine goes through on a combat deployment. Shot at and bombed, witnessing the violent deaths of close friends -- "brothers" -- and innocent civilians, including women and children -- unless he learns to detach his emotions, to lock them away somewhere, I think he couldn't get through the day. He cannot allow himself to feel every sorrow and pain, or he would go insane (living in such daily insanity). He can't react to every death the way a civilian would react to seeing a pedestrian killed by a car right in front of his eyes, because the soldier may see that everyday during a battle.

It's not normal for a person to step off to work knowing the chances are pretty good that someone will seriously try to murder him before he goes back "home" to the barracks. The soldier didn't grow up killing bad guys; he has to learn to adapt to the new, obscene reality of days of intense boredom broken up by sudden life-or-death combat. Or rebuilding destroyed buildings, if he's lucky (at least then, he can see creation, instead of just destruction).

He simply has to do his job, because he has no choice. People's lives depend upon him -- not just his buddies in the unit, but tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqi civilians and an unknown number of regular folks back home in the United States, whose lives and freedom could be at risk if the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine screws up.

A friend of mine, a civilian volunteer who spent some time in Iraq in a non-governmental organization, told me once that she saw so many dead children, women, and old folks blown up by suicide bombers, she couldn't even cry anymore. She felt nothing at the time, while she was in Iraq; she couldn't afford to "feel."

But when she came back home, she suddenly became temporarlily deaf, for no organic reason. Her hearing came back eventually; but that may have been the only way she could deal with the parts of her "tour" that she had suppressed: she had to listen to herself for a while, to the thoughts she couldn't allow herself to think while she and her Iraqi "clients" were still in danger, before she could start listening to her ordinary friends and relatives back in the States.

For someone who goes through such a life-changing experience, it must be hard to adjust to an everyday, simple life back home, in college or at a normal job. Even I, who occasionaly ride a Navy ship for a few weeks, during which I cannot communicate with my husband except via occasional, unreliable e-mail, have difficulty shifting gears to a normal life at home; and that's after only a month and a half of absence. Returning to the world is definitely not a trivial problem; you'd have to expect a certain amount of adjustment problems, even including some homelessness.

At any given moment, we have (more or less) 150,000 troops in Iraq -- sometimes a little more, like now; sometimes a little less. Considering rotation, there must be at least three times as many who have gone through Iraq at some time during the war. That means we likely already have about a half a million Iraq vetrans. Even among ordinary civilians, you would expect to find some homeless people in a city of 500,000.

So it's truly remarkable how few homeless Iraqi vets there are, compared to how many there were among the returning Vietnam veterans:

Interviews and visits to homeless shelters around the Unites States show the number of homeless veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan so far is limited. Of the last 7,500 homeless veterans served by the VA, 50 had served in Iraq. Keaveney, from New Directions in West Los Angeles, said he is treating two homeless veterans from the Army's elite Ranger battalion at his location. U.S.VETS, the largest organization in the country dedicated to helping homeless veterans, found nine veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan in a quick survey of nine shelters. Others, like the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training in Baltimore, said they do not currently have any veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan in their 170 beds set aside for emergency or transitional housing.

I don't want to minimize the problem; any homeless vet is a tragedy. And like any other bureaucracy, I'm sure the Veterans Administration (VA) is not as efficient as it should be, and many veterans must be frustrated by its slow and complicated procedures. But there's just not much that can realistically be done to change things; when you have to deal with hundreds of thousands of people, personal interaction is impossible; bureaucacy is the only way to handle the caseload.

Having had to deal with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), I've had more than my share of agony with government idiocy: waiting in line from 3:00 a.m. until noon, then told to come back some other day, because all the slots for counselling for the day were filled; paperwork that goes missing; finally working my way to the front of a forever-line, only to be told I need some other form, not the one the last INS agent gave me. I still deal with it somewhat as a civilian working in the Navy (that cursed Defense Travel Service!) If a veteran has to go through anything like that, that alone can drive you crazy, for sure!

The good news is that the military has improved drastically since the Vietnam days.

I've heard more than once that a soldier in Vietnam who's term was up was plucked from the middle of a battle by a helicopter and 24 to 36 hours later, dropped off back in his hometown... and that was all the "help" he got. How can a man go from killing enemies and being targeted by unseen snipers in the jungle to scooping ice cream or keeping books -- in just one day?

During World War II, it took long enough to get the troops back home by boat from Europe or the Pacific that they had at least some time to adjust from wartime to peacetime thinking. But in Vietnam, they had helos, C-130s, and then passenger jets back to San Francisco or Detroit or Atlanta. Boom, there they were.

Some years ago, Pentagon planners actually sat down and earned their pay by taking a hard look at the end point of a soldier's enlistment, when he would transition back to the world. They decided it was better to have a staged reintroduction back to civilian life following a combat tour, rather that the instant reintroduction during Vietnam. (At least, that's the way it's supposed to work; PO Arellano's experience shows that the system isn't perfect.) Thanks to the changes made between the late-60s, early 70s and today, returning veterans are treated much better.

Peter Dougherty, director of Homeless Veterans Programs at the VA, said services for veterans at risk of becoming homeless have improved exponentially since the Vietnam era. Over the past 30 years, the VA has expanded from 170 hospitals, adding 850 clinics and 206 veteran centers with an increasing emphasis on mental health. The VA also supports around 300 homeless veteran centers like the ones run by U.S.VETS, a partially non-profit organization.

"You probably have close to 10 times the access points for service than you did 30 years ago," Dougherty said. "We may be catching a lot of these folks who are coming back with mental illness or substance abuse" before they become homeless in the first place. Dougherty said the VA serves around 100,000 homeless veterans each year.

It would be very helpful if each returning trooper could get some kind of counselling before he gets back to civilian life. Not everyone has transition problems, but enough do that the service has a moral obligation to help them readjust.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are being fought with a lot of National Guard units... which means that entire units return home as a group; the soldiers are surrounded by people they know from their own home town; and they get a staged withdrawal from the military: they may stay on active duty for a while, even back stateside, before shifting back to the one weekend a month, two weeks a year duty. If veterans can get together and share their experiences during and after their deployment, that must help them a lot.

(I'm not sure how reserve units work; are they more like National Guard -- a bunch of people from the same general geographical area who deploy and then return as a group? Or are they more like the regular services?)

Military clergymen can also help. Sgt. Long links to this article:

"One of my major preparations for being here was to receive the CAV back," Lt. Col. Kevin Wilkerson, joint forces full-time support chaplain with the Tennessee Guard, referring to the 278th RCT which, before it was deployed, was known as the 278th Armored Calvary Regiment.

Wilkerson has worked very closely with the unit and the Family Readiness Group staff in providing support to members and families of the 278th while they were deployed, and now, while they are transitioning back home "to make their return home successful and make their transition easier," he said...

"The soldiers that are having difficulty, they identified them, and then they were referred to various places for assistance," Wilkerson said. The key is, the soldiers that are referred must follow through to get the help in the end.

Regular Army and Maine Corps personnel don't have the advantage of being surrounded by people who grew up in the same small town in Idaho or Connecticut, but at least entire units rotate in and out, I believe, giving them some continuity. And there are many, many more services developed to help them cope with the change of life necessary to detach from the military and rejoin the civilian world once more.

Help is indeed available for returning vets, so they can get back into a life and be just as comfortable watering the lawn and eating at Hometown Buffet as they learned to be patrolling the streets of Mosul and training Iraqi soldiers how to sweep a building.

Hatched by Sachi on this day, December 15, 2005, at the time of 12:53 AM

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The following hissed in response by: stackja1945

Warriors home from the war. Need understanding for them and their families.

The above hissed in response by: stackja1945 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 15, 2005 3:54 AM

The following hissed in response by: RBMN

The people living around the returning soldier have to adapt a little; give them some time. If somebody just came down from a year living on a tightrope, stretched between two buildings, then, no "playful" shoves, please. At least not for awhile. It's just a little commonsense.

The above hissed in response by: RBMN [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 15, 2005 7:21 AM

The following hissed in response by: Bill Faith

Sachi, thank you for caring enough about our vets to out together a post like this. I'm a Viet Nam vet living in a town that currently has a Guard unit in Iraq, so needless to say this is a matter I care about. I'll do a blog post a little later referencing your post and adding some thoughts of my own, then probably copy most of it to your comment section, but for now just "Thank you."

The above hissed in response by: Bill Faith [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 15, 2005 2:03 PM

The following hissed in response by: Bill Faith

"put together a post" not "out together" Oops.

The above hissed in response by: Bill Faith [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 15, 2005 2:04 PM

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