Disgraceful

09.10.12

Tough Homecoming for Vets: A Marine Homeless After Five Tours in Iraq

Many post-9/11 veterans aren’t ready to go directly into the workforce. It’s time we give them the support they need, writes Harriet McDonald.

For young veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, jobs have not been easy to come by. Their unemployment rate is more than 50 percent higher than for civilians of the same age.  While there’s no shortage of programs intended to help our returning veterans, we need to understand better who these young men and women are—and what they need.

My husband, George, and I had lunch with a group of young veterans at a residential center for homeless men run by our nonprofit organization, The Doe Fund, in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

One man in his late 20s told us, at first quite reluctantly, about his struggles since leaving the Marines more than a year ago. After five tours in Iraq, his life fell apart when he left the military and returned home. He discovered that his fiancée had grown tired of waiting for him and had moved on. He could not find a job. He did not fit in. He started to drink heavily and his family, at first supportive, grew weary of his emotional turmoil. Within a year, he was homeless.

The Marine said he was feeling better now, and that he hoped to work in our culinary program, which trains people for jobs in the food industry. But having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he still needs more time, support, and counseling to stabilize himself and be ready to maintain a job and an independent life.

I don’t mean to make an example of this young man, and I very much want to preserve his privacy and dignity. My point is that his experience is far too common.

Our military is now made up exclusively of those who volunteer to join, and unlike in past wars, the young people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have often served multiple tours of duty. With no draft, our troops have less education on average and come from less economically diverse backgrounds. Due to the high unemployment rate and limited financial aid for prospective college students, many young men and women joined the military in order to receive the benefits that the GI Bill now provides to further their education. 

Most of the veterans whom we serve at The Doe Fund are older, having performed their military service before the recent wars. Even so, about 40 percent of them have been diagnosed with mental-health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress and adjustment disorders, and alcohol or drug abuse.

It’s disgraceful that so many of the young Americans who have risked their lives for our country half way around the world return home unable to earn a living.

There are many reasons for this, but a fundamental one has been overlooked: many of these young men and women are simply not ready to go directly into the civilian workforce. They require help: emotional counseling, assistance with substance and alcohol abuse, and supportive, paid transitional work to develop the skills and attitudes that employers require.

We failed to provide adequately for our veterans of previous wars. As many as one in four of all homeless adults in the United States today is a veteran—and post-9/11 military members are twice as likely to be homeless, according to the VA.

We still have a chance to do better, to provide the assistance that the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq need to thrive in civilian life. But we can do this only if we are completely honest about who they are and what they need.