America Can't Call Itself Truly Patriotic When Thousands Of Veterans Remain Homeless

by John Haltiwanger

I used to work nights at an Irish pub in Washington DC.  Naturally, a lot of people from Boston came in when they visited the capital. One night, a man of about 60 dropped in shortly after I stepped behind the bar.

He was a burly man with a very thick Boston accent, and I asked him how he was dealing with the DC humidity (it was June). "Doesn't bother me," he said, "I was in Vietnam, I can handle a little humidity."

As he sat there, taking long and slow sips of his beer, we got to talking about what led him to DC. He revealed that this was the first time he'd been to the capital in his entire life, and that he had finally made the trek in order to visit the Vietnam Memorial.

He went on to tell me that he'd been waiting for his veteran’s benefits for over a decade and this was the first time in 20 years that he'd left Boston. As a young man with numerous privileges, I couldn't help but feel guilty about the ease of my existence, while this man's youth was swallowed by war and destruction.

It is absolutely disgusting how this country treats its veterans. I couldn't believe that this man was drafted into a war decades ago, and essentially had to wait until he was a senior citizen to receive repayment. For a country that prides itself on its patriotism, we do a terrible job taking care of the individuals that have fought in our wars.

I'm never a fan of war, and I don't agree with the motivations behind many of the wars America has engaged in over the past half-century or so. But I will support those who have served. After all, many of those in Vietnam were not there by choice.

Moreover, all of the brave men and women who have fought in the War on Terror are volunteers. Regardless of the misguided policies that placed them in Iraq or Afghanistan, they came forward to put their lives on the line for their country. Simply put, all veterans deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of where or when they served.

It's particularly hard not to think about these things as the United States threatens war against Russia, and considers how it will combat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Regardless, this is an ongoing issue, and it must be addressed.

On any given night, there are nearly 60,000 homeless veterans on the streets of America.  That number is essentially equal to the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War.

In total, around 12 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans. More generous statistics claim veterans make up closer to 9 percent of the total homeless population. Regardless, the fact is that thousands of veterans remain homeless, and this is simply a disgrace and a poor reflection of American society.

Furthermore, nearly half of all homeless veterans are African-American or Hispanic, despite the fact that the majority of the US population is Caucasian.

According to the National Coalition For Homeless Veterans:

The majority are single; live in urban areas; and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. ...Homeless veterans are younger on average than the total veteran population. Approximately 9% are between the ages of 18 and 30, and 41% are between the ages of 31 and 50. ...America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Nearly half of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. Two-thirds served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone.

Thus, many homeless veterans are Millennials. There are young and old veterans -- a testament to amount of time the United States has spent waging war over the past half century or so. Moreover, most if not all of these veterans are there as a direct product of the wars they have fought in.

Many veterans are physically disabled, and have difficulty securing work. Additionally, a wide number of veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which makes it very difficult for those who have been exposed to the horrors of conflict to reintegrate into society.

Likewise, many of the skills that veterans learn in the military are not always very transferable in terms of the civilian workforce.

The Department for Veterans Affairs (VA) has committed to ending veteran homelessness by 2015, but the likelihood of this occurring is very slim.

On a positive note, in August, the VA approved $300 million in grants for homeless veterans and their families. Moreover, it was also recently announced that veteran homelessness has decreased by 33 percent since 2010. Yet, the struggle is far from over.

The United States shouldn't go to war if it can't afford it, period. And if we are going to send young people off to war, we damn well better take care of them when they come home. War is abhorrent, and painful to remember, but that does not mean we can forget those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

A lot of us walk past homeless people without even thinking about how they may have gotten there. As a society, we have been taught to look down upon the poor. In a nation that promotes entrepreneurship and ambition, the view seems to be that if someone is poor then it's that person's fault.

Next time you see a homeless person, try instead to imagine him or her in a crisp and clean soldier's uniform.

Envision them crawling through the mud in the Vietnamese jungle, or ducking for cover in the Iraqi desert, or freezing while out on patrol during the harsh nights in Afghanistan. Imagine the blood, sweat and tears that they have given for this country.

Simply put, don't judge the homeless, you never know what circumstances may have led them to that point. If you have never been in a position in which you've had to beg for money, then you really have no idea what it means to be homeless.

Likewise, the first step towards ending homelessness is changing the way that people perceive the poorest members of our society.

It does not reflect very well on a nation when its weakest members are alienated and stigmatized, particularly when many of them have fought in our wars. The United States can and should be better than that, and its veterans certainly deserve more.