Never Leave a Veteran Behind

On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, I spent the morning at an American Legion post in Flagstaff, Arizona, at a Veterans’ Forum. The Veterans’ Forum focused on homeless veterans living in the forests in the area around the city of Flagstaff, with the intent of finding ways to insure that the veterans survive the harsh winter conditions in this mountainous area of 7,000 ft. elevation. The first order of the day is to take care of the immediate needs of veterans who struggle daily to live without any kind of formal shelter. Beyond that, however, is the need for a long-term effort to provide services and support to end homelessness among the veterans living in the wilds or in sub-standard, unhealthy conditions.

In November 2009, Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, declared that as a nation we will be committed to ending veteran homelessness within five years. As a result of that declaration, there has been a substantial increase in funding and support for permanent supportive housing, homelessness prevention programs, and other programs targeting homeless veterans. While there has been substantial progress in reducing the numbers of homeless veterans reported by the VA, we know that there is still significant work to be done to achieve the goal of no homeless veterans living in the United States of America.

Some of the areas which require intensive planning and focus are; women veterans (who each year make up a larger percentage of the homeless veteran population); Iraq and Afghanistan veterans (especially in the 20-29 year-old age range); and veterans living in the rural, less populated regions of the country, where there is less access to VA, state agency, and other services for veterans.  An example of this last category is the homeless veteran population in and around the city of Flagstaff. Thus it was very heartening and encouraging on my visit to Flagstaff yesterday to have the opportunity to engage and collaborate with such dedicated and committed community members, from governmental agencies, non-profit and veteran service organizations. Many of the participants in the forum passionately pledged to do whatever is necessary to help prevent and end homelessness among the veterans in their community.

In spite of these efforts, we know that the returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are facing enormous hurdles, both personally and socially, in reintegrating back into civilian life once their deployment overseas and tour of duty in the military is complete. The incidence of PTSD, TBI, physical and mental health issues are extremely high among these returning veterans. The high unemployment rate in the nation in general means that there are fewer avenues for creating a solid foundation for a veteran to reintegrate. Along with unemployment, social stigmas, frayed and strained family and social support networks, undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues (PTSD, depression, suicidal tendencies) will continue to create additional strains and stresses on the already overloaded health and services support networks offered by the VA and other federal, state, and local governmental social service organizations.

The long term social consequences of the issues related to veterans from the two wars have not yet been fully comprehended, but the impact of these issues will be felt for many years and decades to come. We would do well to study this returning population of veterans, and attempt to retool our veteran service and support options to correspond to the needs of current veterans. Very much like the old adage that in our preparation for war we ‘fight the last war,’ our model of service and support for the current group of returning veterans is still tied to the processes and services we put in place to address the needs of the veterans from Vietnam and other conflicts. Let’s rally the best of resources available to insure that we are ahead of the curve in identifying new ways of treating and caring for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, before we are confronted with an overwhelming surge of at-risk veterans, while focusing on joblessness, mental health support, and homelessness prevention. The cost of providing the right level of support and services will be high—but not nearly as high as the cost to the nation if we fail to meet these challenges now rather than later.

Terry Araman
Madison Street Veterans Association