My father was in the Army infantry in World War II. When I was a child he never talked about his experience. For a very out-going, talkative man, his silence was peculiar. The rifles he took home from the war were hidden in our garage. The names of these weapons had a strange label: thirty-aught-six.
I could never figure out his silence to the war until I became an adult operating homeless programs in Los Angeles. For many soldiers drafted into combat, the sights, sounds, and smells of organized death were just too much.
Today, the scientific term is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Back then, the ghosts of war did not disappear after a tour of duty in Europe and a flight home on a DC-3 propeller plane. These images of death did not dissipate simply because there were no scientific names for them.
Although my father earned a doctorate degree in Physics, and became a professor, I am certain those phantoms of death haunted him until the day he passed away in a veterans retirement home.
When I was a child, I would sometimes see him stare out into the sky, like he was transporting himself into a world gone by. He would tell me he was thinking about some physics equation. I think he was fighting memories of war.
Today, when I talk with homeless people who served our country, I sometimes see that same glare. The stare into the abyss.
We have learned that children who experience some sort of traumatic life experience—a death of a parent, an abusive experience—sometimes have the same PTSD symptoms as war-torn veterans. Anger, violence, lack of concentration, nightmares, flashbacks, inability to possess healthy relationships.
No wonder why more than 100,000 Americans who fought in our wars are now homeless. It is hard to keep a job, maintain a healthy marriage, or even regularly pay rent, when the struggle to maintain a housed lifestyle also consists of battling flashbacks of controlled killing.
Where is Tom Hanks when we need him? Where is our “Saving Private Ryan” hero who crossed the European beachhead called Omaha in search of the last surviving brother of three fallen service men?
There are so many more Private Ryans today, struggling to survive on the streets of homeless America.
Sure, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs announced a five year initiative to end veterans homelessness last 2009. But with this difficult economy just starting to gain steam, most people are certain that although millions of dollars have hit the streets, many are still not convinced every veteran in America will be housed.
So more and more Private Ryans end up on our streets. They are veteran warriors from World War II to the current Afghanistan conflict.
Veteran homelessness is a tragic trek, from the battlefield to America’s streets.
(I wrote this article two years ago, but it still is so relevant today.)
Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB