My father was in the Army infantry in World War II. When I was a child he never talked about his experience. For an out-going, talkative man, my father’s silence was peculiar. The rifles he took home from the war were hidden in our garage. His weapons were curiously labeled, “thirty-aught-six.”
I could never figure out why he did not speak about 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 military plane. The 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 retirement home for war veterans.
When I was a child, I would sometimes see him stare out into the sky, like he was transporting himself into another world. My father would tell me he was thinking about some physics equation, but 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, such as the death of a parent or abuse, can develop the same post-traumatic stress symptoms as war-torn veterans. Like veterans, these children can fall victim to anger, violence, lack of concentration, nightmares, flashbacks, and/or an inability to possess healthy relationships.
It is no wonder that 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 killings.
Where is Tom Hanks when we need him? Where is our “Saving Private Ryan” hero who crossed the European beachhead 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 recently announced an initiative to end veterans homelessness in the next five years. While millions of dollars will hit the streets, many are still not convinced every veteran in America will be housed. It will take billions, not millions, a tall order when this country is losing its appetite for more billion dollar infusions of taxpayers’ stimulus money.
In the meantime, those of us on the frontlines of homelessness scramble to find that Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher, a sort of Willie Wonka gold ticket to free housing for veterans. But we know there is just not enough to go around.
So, more and more Private Ryans end up on our streets. They are veteran warriors from World War II to the current Afghanistan conflict, from the battlefield to America’s streets. A disgrace.