Let’s Turn Tragedy to Hope

Minnesota has a problem with homeless veterans, and we’re not dealing with it very well. Seven hundred Minnesota veterans, with an average age of 42.6 years, are homeless, according to the 2003 research study by the Saint Paul Wilder Foundation. Approximately half of this population lives with mental illness and/or physical disabilities. We can only wonder how many of these people suffer from the physical or psychological effects of chemical weapons. They put their lives on the line for us, and now some of them are homeless. Any veterans from Vietnam to the current Gulf War should not have to sleep in doorways, shelters, or live in transitional housing.

I know something about veterans. My dad, a World War II veteran, died of cancer twenty years after he was severely wounded. As a little boy of nine years old, I remembered my dad suffering through two years of 1960’s era cancer treatment, which added to his long-term agonized path to death. What he went through affected his six children, spouse, brothers and sisters, not to mention his mother. My brother is also a veteran of the Vietnam War; he doesn’t like to talk to me about war. Two of my nephews and one great nephew may well be thrust into the Gulf War.

Let’s remember, a veteran who is disabled and homeless did not enter the military as a person homeless and disabled. Healthy civilians who were accepted into the military don’t always come back home from battle with the same good health. How many returning veterans become homeless because of their physical or mental disabilities? It is up to our government to care for these heroic people, especially if they’re injured on the field of battle.

Is it any wonder that many civilians or military personnel anguish over the current population of veterans, disabled and homeless, who continue to suffer from the effects of wartime exposure to chemical weapons. According to Doctor Jeffery L. Arnold, “In general, volatile liquids pose the dual risk of dermal and inhalation exposure, while persistent liquids are more likely to be absorbed across the skin. The effects of vapors largely are influenced by ambient wind conditions; even a slight breeze can blow nerve agent vapor away from its intended target. Effects of vapor are enhanced markedly when deployed within an enclosed space.”

Numerous reports show that pesticide vapors or other chemical weapons like sarin gas, depleted uranium or any other lethal agent(s) will cause abnormalities in the human body. It may be for this reason that approximately fifty percent of the veterans who are homeless suffer from forms of mental illness as well as from physical disabilities.

The 2003 Wilder survey cited that fifty percent of homeless veterans have a chronic medical condition: high blood pressure, asthma, tuberculosis and other chronic lung or respiratory problems, diabetes, hepatitis, and/or HIV/AIDS. Besides the physical disabilities, many of these veterans struggle with mental health concerns.

Mental illness is a significant problem for nearly half (49%) of the veterans who are homeless in the survey. Forty-five percent of veterans who are homeless have been told by a doctor or nurse (within the previous two years) that they have schizophrenia, manic-depression, some other type of delusional disorder, major depression, anti-social personality disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. Thirty-three percent of veterans homeless in this survey have received outpatient mental health services and 30 percent have lived in a facility for persons with mental health problems within the preceding two years.” By comparison, community surveys of the general population, done by the US Department of Health and Human Services, show that at any given time, approximately 20 percent of U.S. adults are experiencing some form of mental illness, including 5.4 percent experiencing a severe mental illness.” And the figures cited above are taken from a survey of known cases of veterans disabled and homeless. What about the veterans disabled who live in isolated rural areas? How will they participate in such a survey, much less receive services?

Finally, I wonder how young soldiers, many 19 to 25 years of age, will transition back into society after they’ve suffered from the effects of improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, or insurgent attacks on their vehicles. How will any of these soldiers, blinded, paralyzed or amputized, live a normal life? It’s a shame for these young soldiers to be rendered homeless. The community has got to reach out to these folks. Society has a responsibility to them, just as they took responsibility when placing themselves in harm’s way for us. One veteran homeless is one too many.

To allow any of our service personnel to remain homeless and/or to not provide them with lifelong care from any affliction they acquire on the battlefield is inhumane. Soldiers who lived through exposure to carcinogens from exploded chemical weapons will carry visible and invisible scars for an undetermined length of time. The long-term effects of damage to the human body need to be evaluated by independent nongovernmental medical agencies, who can make recommendations not swayed by political repercussions.

Government elected officials should appropriate finances for veterans disabled in war to provide them with an accessible house, a livable monthly income, free lifelong education, free lifelong rehabilitation with no cost to adaptive computer technologies and instruction, and free lifelong medical care and treatment. Perhaps the U.S. Congress could mandate million and billion dollar corporations-especially defense contractors to set aside a trust fund for veterans disabled.

It is a truly honorable thing for soldiers to give their lives for freedom as they enter into battle. But it is immoral that any soldier returned home from a war, who became disabled with either a physical or mental disability, be homeless for any length of time. Think about it.

What Can You Do?

To support disabled veterans, contact the Veterans Administration, or get involved with your church groups to either develop or expand services to homeless people. Contact the Wilder Foundation with the name(s) of disabled homeless veterans for the next survey due to be published in October, 2006.

Sources include:

• Wilder Research Center

• Dr. Jeffery L. Arnold, Last Updated—October 25, 2004, CBRNE—Chemical Warfare Agents: EMedicine Specialties, Emergency Medicine, Warfare—Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear And Explosives.

• Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1989). Mental Health: A report of the Surgeon General—Executive summary. Rockville, Md).