The Struggle of Veteran Reintegration into Society
Upon re-entering civilian life, American war veterans are faced with a range of challenges and problems that impact both their short and long-term ability to reassimilate into the culture of our society. This affects not only the homeless themselves but also the communities surrounding them.
I am immensely grateful for how veterans have put their lives on the line for our country, but it saddens me that many of them have to live in such unenviable conditions. My mom and I try to help homeless people through our “Spaghetti Nights” where we make spaghetti, pack it into take-out containers, then drive around Oakland and Berkeley looking for people to give it to. I don’t know which homeless people are veterans, but I still wonder about how hard it must be to live like that and how the homeless got into their unfortunate situation.
More about why I’m interested in this topic here!
As America changed between the Revolutionary War to the Vietnam War, veterans have faced an increasingly harder time reentering society, encountering problems ranging from unemployment to mental illness and homelessness. Jobs were hard to come by for soldiers “return[ing] to a society that doesn’t understand how skills forged in the military apply in the work place” and who could not find “challenging, productive outlets for talents developed on distant battlefields” (“Coming Home”). After the Revolutionary War in 1783, vagabonds, defined as migrants with no job or house, began appearing in greater numbers in urban areas, and many of them were noted to be veterans (“War and Homelessness”).
World War I (WWI) brought widespread recognition of another significant after-effect of combat: mental illness. The term “shell shock” (now known as PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder) was coined in 1915 to mean physiological injury resulting from prolonged exposure to war. Thousands of WWI veterans were diagnosed with shell shock and were now afforded medical treatment for their mental illness, in stark contrast to years past when they would have been sent to a mental asylum. Unfortunately, treatment was not always sufficient and many shell shocked veterans fell into crime, suicide, and other unpredictable behavior (Stagner). Dr. Thomas Salmon, a war-renowned psychiatrist, claimed that from 1920 to July of 1921, 400 mentally unstable veterans had committed suicide in New York. By the mid-1930s, the number of veteran suicides had skyrocketed to two a day. Thus, the mentally unstable and dangerous veteran lost much-needed community support, further blocking their reassimilation into society (Stagner).
[The veteran] returns as a tainted intruder … likely to seek continuing outlets for a pattern of violence to which they have become habituated.”– Robert Jay Lifton, activist-psychiatrist of the 1970s
World War II (WWII) was a different story. It was the first war that was filmed and its footage was shown to the public with voiceovers “emphasizing the bravery of our fighting boys on the front lines” (McClancy). This glorification of battle and soldiers promoted the idea that war was a grand, epic adventure, and the violence committed by soldiers was dismissed because they were fighting for the good of the country; thus, public support of veterans had a resurgence during this time. But ten years later brought the beginning of the much protested and bloody Vietnam War. By the late 1960s, the soldier was no longer portrayed as a heroic warrior and the uplifting promotional WWII war reels and propaganda were replaced by violent images of the gory aftermath of battle. Many Vietnam veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and were regularly portrayed in the media as dangerous people “abusing drugs, refusing orders, and generally behaving in an undisciplined manner” (McClancy). This greatly affected their ability to return to civilian life as few companies were willing to offer jobs to the violent, unstable “Vietvet” (McClancy). By 1996, 23% of the American homeless population was composed of veterans and as of 2017, over 40,000 of the total 18.5 million living veterans experience homelessness.
If this interests you, you can read more about the history of the problem here.
Many American veterans face challenges upon reentering society post-service due to difficulties finding employment, substance abuse disorders and mental illness, leading to homelessness for some. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 30% of veterans aged 18-24 are unemployed and 76% experience “alcohol, drugs, or other mental health illnesses,” resulting in veterans being “twice as likely to become chronically homeless as other Americans” (John). Homelessness negatively impacts our economy and is a threat to public health. Once homeless, finding a job becomes even harder and individuals are more likely to succumb to substance abuse and mental health problem. For instance, the VA reports that in 2014, 45% of all homeless veterans suffer from mental illness (Galea) (“The Mental Health Needs of Veterans”).
If you are interested in reading the complete page, click here.
Veterans are twice as likely as other Americans to become chronically homeless”– Joshua John, USC School of Social Work
The U.S. and local government offer multiple services aimed to help rehabilitate and support veterans, including providing medical care, vocational training, financial and housing assistance. For example, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is responsible for serving the needs of our veterans and their families through health care, financial aid, education assistance, and other benefits (“Homeless Veterans”). Outside the VA headquarters in Washington lies a plaque, which reads:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive…to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”– Abraham Lincoln, 1865
Due to federal efforts and resources available to veterans, the veteran homeless population decreased by more than 50% between 2010 and 2017 (Green). However, in 2017, VA officials announced that zero homeless veterans nationwide was “not a realistic goal” (Shane III), and even though a year before the number of homeless veterans had dropped by 35,000 individuals, now that number has increased from by several hundred people, unfortunately breaking the positive streak America had had for two decades (Shane III).
To view the full page about current efforts on the local and large scale levels, click here.
In order to reach a few of the Sustainable Development Goals (no poverty, and good health and well-being) and counteract how many American veterans face challenges upon readjusting to society post-service, I propose that we take action on the individual, local, and federal levels (Tsai). State and federal support come in all shapes and sizes, mainly the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which helps veterans obtain affordable housing, offering vocational training, and therapy, among other things (“Homeless Veterans”). But I propose we take it one step further. Because individual and community support is imperative for veterans to truly feel at home in their own country, I suggest that we stand up and serve the people who once served us. My family and I regularly donate clothes and other necessities to the Salvation Army, and it takes just 30 seconds to donate online (link below). You can also volunteer at your local VA center and give back to your community.
On a more large scale level, VA organizations can send representatives to schools, hospitals, and companies in order to educate the public about what individuals can do to help veterans reentering society. In addition, each veteran would have an assigned personal “life coach,” catering to their individual needs and teaching them key skills to become a successful citizen. Health and tech conglomerates would partner with state funds do their part and fund these endeavors.
Not only will these solutions help veterans by heightening their ability to naturally reassimilate into pop culture, but also reach out to the public and next generations to raise awareness about the dangers of serving and how to support those who have served. Thus, if we implement these strategies into our individual lives, state and federal systems, veterans will have a more natural and comfortable readjustment to society.
You can read a more in-depth version of this here, where I fully explain multiple ways you can get involved!
You can donate to the Salvation Army here!
Volunteer/donate at your local VA here!
Check out other Sustainable Development Goals here!
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