Sustained Outrage

Homelessness a problem for Iraq and Afghanistan vets

In case our readers missed it, CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired a powerful segment yesterday (watch the video here, read the story here) on the growing ranks of homeless veterans in America. Correspondent Scott Pelley went to Stand Down, an annual gathering for veterans that started in 1988.

Back then, it was an emergency response to homelessness among Vietnam vets but, 23 years later, [co-found and soldier-turned-clinical psychologist Jon] Nachison is welcoming the generation from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stand Down is a three day campout that’s part job fair, part health clinic, part sobriety meeting. The name is a military term for the time when a solider can put down his weapon and stop fighting. The homeless go for a shot at redemption.

A few things really stand out from the piece.

— Two million Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

— Of those, 800,000 have been deployed more than once.

— 250,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have asked for mental health treatment.

— The Veterans Administration told CBS that 9,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets are already homeless.

Interestingly, the latest figures from the Congressional Budget Office estimate that the cost of treating veterans will only grow by 45 to 75 percent by 2010, to between $65 and $89 billion.

Although veterans from recent conflicts will represent a fast-growing share of enrollments in VA health care over the next decade, the share of VA’s resources devoted to the care of those veterans is projected to remain small through 2020, in part because they are younger and healthier than other veterans served by VA.

The 60 Minutes piece also does a good job at showing how slippery the slope from barracks to homelessness can be. Every soldier has a different story, and I don’t mean to generalize, but it’s easy to see a recurring pattern. A soldier returns from combat experiences with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (possibly made worse by a concussive head wound, particularly prevalent in Iraq and Afghanistan), and has trouble acclimating to civilian life. He or she might try to self medicate with drugs and alcohol, and end up with a substance abuse problem, which in turn might result in problems holding down a job, money problems, and strained relationships with loved ones, all of which contribute to homelessness.

Stand Down, and its heroic efforts to help struggling veterans connect with much-needed avenues of support, is a reminder of how the men and women who have put themselves in harms way for our country deserve better treatment — medical and otherwise — when they get home. And as a society, we need to make sure we don’t criminalize veterans for behavior that really requires treatment, not punishment.