November 11, 2006
As warm as the president’s words of praise may be, they need to be translated into care and concern for those veterans whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed because they served in wartime.
As vital as this care is for those veterans of Iraq who have suffered terrible wounds that killed in ealier wars, they are not the only ones – and these the only negative consequences – of this war. Among National Guard and Reservists who were self employed, a number saw their businesses destroyed because no one else was available to keep the business afloat in their absence. Worse, among these veterans, some have fallen deeply into debt with no prospect of financial recovery.
One seemingly enduring consequence of war, one that lasts across decades, is the number of veterans who become homeless. In modern times in the U.S., the first major manifestation of homelessness among veterans was the “Bonus March” on Washington in 1932. The veterans were seeking payment of a bonus that Congress passed in 1924 (The Adjusted Service Certificate Law) that was to be paid in 1945. The economic plight of the veterans was but a small aspect of the larger problems associated with the Great Depression.
In fact, however, homelessness among veterans really became a national issue only in the post-Vietnam War era.
Today, every night an estimated 200,000 veterans of U.S. wars are homeless. This number is some 40 percent of the homeless across the U.S. Contrary to public perception, the majority of these 200,000 are not from the Vietnam era – that number is about 70,000 – nor did the majority endure prolonged exposure to combat.
But now, homelessness among the veterans of the second Iraq war is starting to escalate. While the published figure is 600, this is only those who have been identified as veterans by government agencies and thus undoubtedly is only the tip of the iceberg. If the patterns of past wars repeat themselves, the country and the Veterans Administration in particular stand on the cusp of a new explosion of homeless veterans.
Past experiences indicate that recognition of the service of veterans can help in their treatment. But since the problem extends beyond veterans, the administration needs to devise pragmatic and effective programs that address the root causes of all homelessness – lack of a living wage, lack of affordable housing, and lack of comprehensive health care. Headway in these areas will help veterans and, if policies are put in place quickly enough, could mitigate the effects of the current war on the future numbers of homeless veterans.