Tens of thousands of Western troops have either left Iraq or will leave Afghanistan and make the journey home over the next couple of years. Those who then leave the military will face an even more perilous journey back into civilian society, where weak economic growth has made it increasingly difficult to get work.
Government agencies in the United States, Britain, Canada and other nations that support those who have served are braced for the expected influx of new veterans. Officials are implementing new programs to help ease the transition from the military to civilian life. The great unknown, though, is how the economy will fare in months ahead.
Dr. Susan Angell, Executive Director of the Veterans Homeless Initiative at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said the VA will be keeping a concerned eye on those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan given trends already evident in the job market.
“That population, that young population, has the highest unemployment rate of any of our veteran populations and it’s much higher than the overall unemployment rate. So we’re very concerned about this group,” she said. According to Angell, joblessness among these younger veterans is running around 11.5 percent — higher still among women vets.
Officials and homeless experts agree poverty, not drinking or mental illness, is the main reason vets end up on the street.
The U.S. withdrew troops from Iraq in December 2011. In Afghanistan, NATO is training a force of 350,000 Afghan police and soldiers to take over when the last foreign troops leave Afghanistan by 2014.
There are still relatively few of this new breed of veteran in the homeless population. But according to Neil Donovan, Executive Director of the U.S. National Coalition of the Homeless, those on the path to homelessness are still at the early stages of that transition.
“It doesn’t happen in a year and it doesn’t happen in two years,” he said.
“What tends to happen is you have a year’s worth of nightmares and then your wife leaves,” he said, “And then you have another year of nightmares and the Oxycontin or the Percocet that you’re on stop working because it’s a narcotic that will only work for so long, and then the pain becomes so profound that you begin using it beyond the prescribed amount, and then the doctor won’t prescribe it any longer so you start self-medicating and then you start getting into illegal behavior.”
At this point, up to three years down the road, the soon-to-be-homeless veteran slides below the poverty line and the risk of homelessness becomes acute.
“So we are quite far out from seeing the true wave of people who will become homeless. And there are going to be a lot of people who are homeless and the people who are homeless are going to be people who are physically handicapped as well as emotionally handicapped,” Donovan added.
There are other dangers in the current economy for the newest crop of veterans. Many Western countries are cutting spending as they wrestle with huge deficits. This could threaten funding for vital programs just at the point the newest crop needs help.
Canada recently proposed $226 million in budget cuts from Veterans Affairs, but a government spokesman told Vancouver street magazine Megaphone these were aimed at improving efficiency rather than lowering benefits.
Funding at the U.S. VA has actually risen after a 2009 pledge to end homelessness by 2015 by U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and President Obama. But Angell of the Veterans Homeless Initiative agrees it is hard to predict what will happen in future.
“It’s hard to imagine that people wouldn’t be behind the employment of veterans,” she said. “And really that’s not just a government issue— that’s the American people’s issue. It’s not up to government to hire every single veteran. It’s really up to the private sector to join forces with that and make those employment opportunities available.”
In Britain, Hugh Milroy, who served in the first Gulf War and is now CEO of UK charity Veterans Aid, worries that too much focus on the homelessness issue may brand veterans as victims.
He agrees the situation is tougher in the United States, in part because of the absence of universal health care and a strong social safety net.
Difficult to count
Determining a global count of veterans on the street is difficult, in part because of varying official definitions of what constitutes homelessness.
According to the most recent data available from U.S. Housing and Urban Development, 144,842 American veterans, or 11.5 percent of homeless adults, spent at least one night in emergency or transitional housing between October 2009 and September 2010, down 3 percent from the year before. A second measure, the number of homeless veterans on a single night, rose 1 percent.
For its part, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in the United States
estimates that while only 8 percent of the general populace are veterans, those who served in the military account for nearly one-fifth of the adult homeless population.
Official counts are likely low since they leave out veterans who never register at a homeless facility — those who go from friend’s house to friend’s house, sleep in cars, in the woods or on the streets. It also leaves out those who don’t admit to being veterans.
Denmark’s support for its returnees is not as pronounced as in some other countries, according to street newspaper Hus Forbi. The Ministry of Defense there puts returning soldiers through a three-month acclimatization program. Six months after their return, they are asked to fill out a questionnaire. One-third of veterans never reply.
In Britain, one study showed 3 percent of those found sleeping on the streets in London between April 2009 and March 2010 had served in the military.
Experts cite a host of reasons veterans may be at risk of homelessness, including trouble adjusting to the chaotic rhythm of “normal” life after the comforting rigor of military routine, post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulty translating work in the service into marketable job skills, loss of camaraderie, dependence on alcohol or drugs, serious physical injury.
Veterans may also contend with all the issues that can cause homelessness in the mainstream of society, such as lack of affordable housing, jobs that don’t pay a living wage, red tape that makes social services impossible to navigate, physical or mental disabilities.
The new crop of veterans also face a greater likelihood of serious physical disability than those of the past, according to Alison Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits at the U.S. VA.
“Our veterans are ... 10 times more likely to survive a major injury or illness and that’s a good thing, but that means that we are going to be taking care of many more people for some very serious injuries for a long time,” she said.
Donovan said there is an increased risk of substance abuse in U.S. veterans who suffer debilitating injuries because doctors often prescribe potentially addictive painkillers.
Angell says many of the staff at the VA’s 300 centers across the United States are former combat veterans who understand the trauma of life under fire.
Conscious of the disproportionate numbers of ex-service personnel in the ranks of U.S. unemployed, the VA has hired 400 formerly homeless veterans act as peer counselors for those trying to find work.
Bryan Green, 64, a former staff sergeant in the UK’s Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, found it hard to adapt to civilian life after a quarter century in the military.
“It takes a long time to re-adjust. Bills and everything else have been done for you, so you don’t have a clue. And you’re not part of a team. Suddenly the army is gone. A door has been shut in your life,” Green said.
On Canada’s west coast, Phil Quesnelle, recently released from the Canadian Forces on disability after receiving a diagnosis of PTSD, acts as a peer counselor. He says ”people expect you to go back to normal over the span of that 10-hour flight back to Canada. It doesn’t work that way and people just don’t understand it.”