MAXWELL:  The wounded walk America’s streets

11/12/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


His first name is Lester. ” “Les’ for short,” he said, when I first met him in July 1994 outside the open air post office in downtown St. Petersburg.

He is white, in his mid-30s, frightfully thin, about 6 feet tall. He wobbles, even as he stands still. He is always dirty and smells of alcohol, tobacco, sweat and urine.

I see him on occasion, perhaps two or three times a month in different parts of town. When we meet, he shakes me down for pocket change. One afternoon, I sprang for $5.

I first noticed Les because of his filthy Marine Corps shirt and worn-out boots. He is a Persian Gulf war grunt. And, like thousands of other veterans of America’s wars, Les is one of the walking wounded who lives on the streets and is one of the statistics in a recently released survey of homelessness among veterans. The survey was conducted by the International Union of Gospel Missions.

“War is something that breaks people,” said Phil Rydman, an official for Gospel Missions, a network of rescue facilities nationwide. “Some people are not able to get back into civilian life because of what they have experienced in the conflict setting.”

The survey, titled “Veterans Day 1996,” of 11,000 homeless men seeking shelter in 58 missions in October indicates that more than a third were mostly combat veterans from the Korean, Vietnam and gulf conflicts. This is a startling figure because veterans account for only 19 percent of the country’s male population.

The Gospel Missions survey and a Veterans Administration study paint at least three dismal pictures _ one outlining the different effects the various wars have had on our veterans, another of a nation that does not give a damn about its combat veterans, yet another of desperate, mentally ill men who have few places to turn for help.

The Vietnam conflict is taking the greatest toll on our servicemen. While making up only 10 percent of the veteran population, Vietnam veterans represent 42 percent of homeless veterans, according to the most recent figures released by the VA and Vietnam Veterans of America. Vietnam veterans, for example, suffer disproportionately from drug and alcohol addiction and multiple divorces.

“We’re still getting new Vietnam veterans,” said Stephen Burger, executive director of Gospel Missions. “That should be a little shocking to us. They didn’t come back and become homeless. They came back and became part of the community, and then things happened that made them become homeless. Many of these people are struggling with identity. They are struggling with guilt.”

Ten percent of veterans seeking housing fought in Korea during the early 1950s, with another 10 percent having served in the 1991 gulf war. Although the problems of Vietnam veterans have been studied ad infinitum, only now are Americans paying serious attention to the unique problems of gulf war veterans.

For many, employment is the greatest obstacle. Burger said that the slogan “Be all that you can be” pulled many young men into the military during the years and months leading up to the gulf war. But thousands of them, Burger said, “came out not having gained what they needed to live in civilian life. Driving a tank doesn’t necessarily make you qualified to work in an office or at McDonald’s.”

Rydman agrees with Burger, saying: “There’s a very short time between military conflict and life in the streets. That’s something to be concerned about.”

The survey also debunks the notion that most homeless veterans were losers even while in uniform. The fact is that 71 percent of homeless veterans earned honorable discharges, with 24 percent receiving medical or general discharges. Only 5 percent had dishonorable papers.

Les, like thousands of other veterans, suffers from what was once called “shell shock.” Today, it is called post-traumatic stress syndrome, an ailment whose symptoms come and go. Even after more than 20 years, Vietnam veterans, many of them racked by severe mental and emotional distress, are showing up at rescue missions.

Those from the gulf war, like Les, will suffer far into the 21st century. On this day after Veterans Day 1997, we Americans need to recommit ourselves to helping our veterans. We should stop turning our backs on them and walking past them on the street.

We need to take an active interest in the problems of our veterans and treat them with dignity. After all, we owe them a great debt, one that we should regularly repay.