January 25, 2008

Steve Padilla


Few are more revered in American culture than are those who have or who currently serve our country in uniform. In times of conflict they are ultimately the stuff of our history, in many cases legends, sometimes under-appreciated and even ill-treated. In all cases, they are heroes.

Veterans represent the fabric of our country, literally coming from the heart of this nation – all too often from among the poor, the working class, the skilled but not formally educated. Yes, we have made some progress over the last two centuries toward serving them in turn, with the provision of services, helping at times with education and housing when the battles were over or won. But while we revere our uniformed men and women, we often get lost or caught up in rhetoric, literature, politics and popular culture which we associate with being patriotic, and still forget to do right by them.

For far too many vets, another important battle is being waged and far too often it is being lost. They battle to overcome the very real stresses resulting from service, which leads many to the streets. The result is a national shame contained in two words, which should never appear together in a sentence: Homeless Veterans.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, at least 25% of the homeless population in the United States is comprised of veterans, and 33% of all homeless males are veterans. Of these, some 76% experience alcohol, drug or mental health problems. Increasingly, vets are fighting to adjust after experiencing and seeing things most of us would never want to, and thanks to their service-never will. Some adapt in their own way, but those without that ability or support, many times end up on the streets.

Studies show that many at-risk and displaced veterans are struggling with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and cope with alcohol and/or drugs. Add in an extreme shortage of affordable housing, the ability to earn livable wages, lack of access to health care and you have a recipe for decline and homelessness. While most homeless are single men, most of our resources are aimed at families or homeless women with dependant children, according to a 1997 study published by the Fannie Mae Foundation.

This problem is not new. Throughout our history after sending our young men and now yes, our women off to war, some have always returned only to fight a battle within themselves. After the Civil War, thousands wandered, many addicted to morphine looking for odd jobs and were known as “tramps.” Years after the end of World War I, thousands of disaffected vets marched on Washington demanding benefits promised and not delivered, only to be removed by the active duty military. We know the struggles of many Vietnam vets and the reception they received when returning home. Today, according to a recent report by the Associated Press and ABC News, it is happening again and in greater numbers.

In 2006, an estimated 336,000 veterans were homeless at some point during the year. Many are young, and returning from conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The nature of the current conflict has made every place a potential battlefield, and constant multiple deployments are making the number of suffering vets increase. Even with more than 200 adjustment centers and 900 V.A. community clinics nationwide, it is still not enough.

I am proud to have been born a Marine Corps brat, and raised by an Army vet who took my Dad’s place after his death when I was a small child. My grandfathers on both sides of my family served in the Navy and fought in the Pacific during World War II, and my uncle still retains shrapnel in an arm he earned in Vietnam. Because of them, I could build a career in public life and wear a different uniform in my younger years.

Tonight, in many places- in parks, on benches and under bridges, vets will go to sleep on the streets. It is unbelievable to me that in this day and age, some idiot talk show host on one of the cable networks is having a very public argument with one of the candidates for President as to whether or not a large number of vets will go to sleep under a bridge somewhere in our country. I wonder, are we really our brother’s keeper?

That even one will sleep outside is a disgrace to our nation. For myself, I will listen to and support any leaders who speak to this issue and how we can end it. I hope we can all remember more often, that we are the land of the free, because of the brave.

Padilla served as Chula Vista Mayor from 2002-06 and on the California Coastal Commission from 2005-07. He is President/CEO of Aquarius Group, Inc. and can be contacted at: spadilla@aquariusgroup.org.

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