Throughout the past two hundred and fifty years, America has been defined by its military successes and failures. The nation was created when ragtag colonial militias triumphed over most powerful military in the world,the bloodiest day in world history occurred during our brutal Civil War, and we turned the tide and won both world wars. The people most integral to the success and most affected by all of these conflicts have been our own war veterans. Yet, since our country’s start veterans, those have given their lives for our safety, have been plagued by the same relentless problems of homelessness and mental illness, specifically PTSD. Government and the Veteran’s Association structure as well as varying cultural attitudes in the military have led to as many as 26% of veterans suffering homeless and without the mental health care they need. It is time for everyone to recognize the magnitude of this issue and bring justice for veterans.
I am deeply passionate about this topic because I believe that it is our duty to make sure that the people who protect our lives and freedom have the necessary financial and health support that they so desperately need. I have a strong military legacy in my family, as three of my great-grandfathers served in World War II and my grandfather was active during the Vietnam War. I was curious as to why problems plaguing veterans have been so persistent in our countries history despite many private and government relief efforts. I feel that in our current political climate, support for veterans is taking a backseat to countless other issues when it has been one of the longest-lasting and unjust problems, so I want to speak up for veterans who need a voice.
See my full personal interest essay here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/17nSNmy03g48HDfodVzrJQjjmCkp117TGJ5RTUiYiQ8A/edit
Tracing the Problem’s History
From the birth of the country, the deck has been stacked in favor of veteran homelessness. Recruits for the Continental Army were from the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, often “lack[ing] wealth and property” (O’Shaughnessy). A homeless veteran march on Philadelphia in 1783 failed to secure deserved payments (Homeless War Veterans Span U.S. History). This pattern continued, and for nearly forty years after our revolution, veterans continued to not receive due payment because Democratic-Republicans despised proffessional armies (O’Shaughnessy). Many of these struggling veterans joined Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1787 (Phillip). It was swiftly crushed and nothing was done to address the root issue of homeless veterans (Phillip).
Civil War veteran homelessness was so rampant that the term “tramp” was coined to refer to homeless veterans (Holloran). Many veterans became addicted to drugs and alcohol and to cope with PTSD stemming from the close combat of the war, and frequently did not receive their badly-needed, promised benefits due to bureaucratic delays (Gannon). The public was unwilling to help because they simply “did not understand the nature of [the veterans’] suffering and sacrifices” (Gannon).
A high percentage of Vietnam veterans had mental trauma that drove them to alcoholism for relief (Engst). Because of injuries and alcoholism, one study across California homeless shelters showed that 42% of the homeless were veterans (Engst). Public attitudes towards veterans during the Vietnam war were at an all time low as the U.S. was losing the war that many Americans were initially against, so instead of receiving help, many veterans faced scorn when returning home (Engst).
Mental illness, specifically PTSD, and suicide contribute to the issue of veteran homelessness, but have their own history of plauging veterans as well. After World War I, the term “shell shock” was used to describe PTSD and other mental illnesses (Winter). This lack of specificity was due to a “political culture that was unprepared to provide a place for ex-soldiers” (Winter). As a result of the political culture, veterans suffered mental illnesses without treatment, because the government used the most limited definition of what a war-related injury or illness was (Winter).
Following World War II, “combat fatigue” replaced “shell shock.” This change in terms did not really help veteran affairs (Kaimen). Some estimates show that 60% of veterans suffer from PTSD, but it was not added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980, which made treating it next to impossible Kaimen).
After the Iraq war, veteran suicide rates began to skyrocket. Every year from 2004 to 2011, Army suicides increased (Harrell). PTSD Symptoms and traumatic brain injury are some of the reasons for suicides, but a large issue in treating veteran suicide is not knowing enough about why it occurs (Harrell). Preliminary studies, once again link the issue back to culture as there is a stigma around asking for help with mental health issues (Harrell).
See my full historical problems essay here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1VlQX4viohQUfz6LZpxfFRoM4RtdAAIRyb25II66SGdQ/edit
What You Need to Know
Right now, roughly 11% of America’s homeless population are veterans (National Coalition for Homeless Veterans). Alcohol and drug addiction is a primary cause of veteran homelessness, with some estimates showing over half of the homeless veterans turning to them to cope with mental illnesses that stem from their time in service (Goldstein, G. et al.). These coping mechanisms become addictions that are debilitating in getting oneself out of a homeless state (Carter, Phillip, et al.).
High veteran homelessness rates are due in large part to high unemployment rates. Broad surveys of the veteran population suggest that injuries and mental trauma that veterans often suffer while serving limit the jobs they are suited to work at (“Five Hypotheses for High Veteran Unemployment.”). High veteran unemployment rates may also be due to employer discrimination against veterans stemming from personal prejudice against military institutions (“Five Hypotheses for High Veteran Unemployment.”).
PTSD feeds a host of issues including alcohol and drug addictions that inhibit job opportunities and getting out of homelessness as well as the extreme discomfort in everyday life (Sabella, Donna). Many polls show that roughly 30% of veterans have experienced PTSD and 50% of homeless veterans are seriously mentally ill (Sabella, Donna). This issue of veteran mental illness is exacerbated by the challenges they seek in getting treatment. The way the Veteran’s Association healthcare system is set up is that the lower discharge (report on how they performed) a veteran received, the harder it is for them to receive treatment for medical issues that oftentimes caused their discharge (IZZO, REBECCA). Many veterans actually report receiving lower discharges for alcoholism that stemmed from coping with PTSD because they were not receiving proper service in the military (IZZO, REBECCA). This unfortunate structure in the VA leads to veterans suffering away with mental illnesses and addictions, often only a small fault of their own (IZZO, REBECCA).
Under Obama, from 2010 to 2016, a huge push was made that reduced veteran homelessness by 47% (“PRESIDENT OBAMA ADMINISTRATION ANNOUNCES NEARLY 50-PERCENT DECLINE IN VETERAN HOMELESSNESS.”). Much of the success was attributed to the HUD-VA Supportive Housing Program which gave many homeless veterans housing vouchers and “combin[ed] HUD rental assistance with case management and clinical services provided by the VA.” But, the percentage of veterans who are homeless is still quite high proportional to the general population. The veteran homeless population’s large size and varying locations as well as limited public housing resources combined to form hefty challenges for the Supportive Housing Program (Carter, Phillip, et al.).
The VA says that from 2003 to 2014, the number of veterans seeking treatment for PTSD more than doubled. This statistic means that the stigma around seeking mental health treatment is disappearing (To Treat PTSD, Veterans have A Vast Array of Ineffective Solutions). The problem is that neither the Pentagon or VA track any data about how well (or not well) their PTSD treatments for veterans are working (To Treat PTSD, Veterans have A Vast Array of Ineffective Solutions). As the veteran population continues to become younger and a larger portion of U.S. veterans fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the needs of these veterans with PTSD are different from older veterans with PTSD. These younger veterans have more of a desire to get on with their life, deny their illness, and physically and mentally be active (Cook, Joan M., et al). Thus, residential VA programs’ effectiveness in treating PTSD among an emerging group of younger veterans has decreased since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wrapped up.
See my full present problems essay here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1eC9FJ-Ndjncki1bZOqC_6hqaE0JF-tloGc6__E0xkpw/edit
Take Micro Steps:
- Help contribute to a supportive culture of veterans by reconsidering any of your negative opinions of veterans. Speak up against negative stereotypes or talk of veterans
- If you can, donate any amount to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. This group works on finding homeless veterans off the streets, lobbying in government for improved policy to fix veteran homelessness, building service capacity, and maintaining a hotline for veterans at risk of homelessness https://www.nchv.org/. You can also donate to Military OneSource that gives free counseling to veterans with PTSD https://www.militaryonesource.mil/.
- If you really want to make a positive dent, volunteer at a local weekend-long Stand Down event. Stand Down gives homeless veterans “a secure, community-like retreat to receive healthcare and personal hygiene services, food, clothing, housing, and employment referrals, and VA benefits counseling – all in one location.” http://nchv.org/index.php/service/service/stand_down/
Suggested Macro steps:
- A slightly modified continuation of the HUD-VA Supportive Housing program. To combat the shortage of housing, the government needs to build partnerships with local organizations combating veteran homelessness (i.e. entrusting VA land with organizations to house veterans on it) (Carter, Phillip, et al).
- Adoption of a “functional zero” approach to ending veteran homelessness which accounts for the diverse geographic population of homeless veterans. A “functional zero” approach to ending homelessness is where the number of homeless veterans in any given month across an area is less than the “monthly housing placement rate for veterans” (Carter, Phillip, et al).
- The VA must immediately begin tracking the effectiveness of its current PTSD treatment for veterans, as a baseline is the first step to improving treatment (To Treat PTSD, Veterans have A Vast Array of Ineffective Solutions).
- The VA also must immediately remove or circumvent policy that prevents veterans with less than honorable discharges from receiving the full treatment they need. The way to circumvent these policies is to have the Army Board of Correction for Military Records take a more lenient stance on improving discharge records when it comes to PTSD (IZZO, REBECCA).
See my full solutions essay here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1eC9FJ-Ndjncki1bZOqC_6hqaE0JF-tloGc6__E0xkpw/edit
To view my works cited, click here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1AsC5yzqKwFSDpmH7uzNKTX1MrQ9ReRHkqMr3XBWR8ps/edit
Please comment below providing feedback on my micro and macro solutions. I feel as though the micro solutions my micro-steps are not the most scalable as not everyone can donate money or volunteer time. Do you have other more easily applicable solutions like speaking up for veterans or considering your own opinions? Do you think my macro solutions are too reliant on the government? If so, how can we insight mass positive change?