Coming Home Homeless: The New Homeless Among Veterans

Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan wars seek homes upon returning to America

December 26, 2010, 9:19 AM

WASHINGTON, Dec 26, 2010— -- Jose Pagan is a decorated veteran who survived two tours of duty in Iraq as a road clearance specialist. Just three days after leaving the military he was homeless and living on the streets of the Bronx.

Jose says being homeless after his service is something he never would have imagined. "It was embarrassing," Pagan says.

"Honor, pride, duty, loyalty, all these things that we -- that kick in as a soldier, you know. And then to find yourself here," as he points to the park benches where he slept for almost two months.

Pagan is one of an estimated nine thousand returning servicemembers from Iraq and Afghanistan that the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates have been homeless. Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, calls that a conservative estimate.

"I think even if there's one, it should be a national outrage. I mean a day when it's twenty degrees outside and the idea that some men or woman who got home from Iraq or Afghanistan maybe just a couple of months ago are homeless, that should outrage everybody in America."

Even the Department of Veterans Affairs believes the number of homeless could be higher, a result of combat stress, brain injuries from IEDs, repeated deployments, and rising use of drugs and alcohol. For many families of servicemembers it becomes simply too much -- family breakups are one reason why women are becoming homeless faster than men.

Tara Henry was a chemical weapons specialist with the 101st Airborne and served two deployments to Iraq. Her second tour of duty came only four months after her son was born, but while in Iraq her husband filed for divorce and was granted custody of their two kids.

"When I found out about court and everything else, I said, 'You know what? I gotta get a lawyer." Henry says. "So, I was trying to deal with those things while I was in Iraq. So that's where my money was going."

Henry has lived in shelters, hotels, even in a car on the street. She hasn't told her children that she's homeless. "I don't really think they would understand that," she says.

The military is beginning to understand why more veterans are homeless. "I think we have to do a better job of ensuring that all soldiers, not just those that are seriously wounded, are informed of the services that are available to them and so none of them leave the service and find themselves in a situation where they have nowhere to live," the Vice Chief of the Army General Peter Chiarelli told ABC "This Week" anchor Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview Sunday.

Chiarelli agrees repeated deployments are creating instability away from the frontlines of war. "We need more time at home before deployment," Chiarelli told Amanpour. "It affects everything. It affects the divorce rate. It affects substance abuse."

Chiarelli also says posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injury impact those who have served in war, particularly when it goes undiagnosed. "We just don't know that much about the brain," Chiarelli told Amanpour. "We automatically assume so many times that a person that's in a blast has a concussion. Many times, they don't have a concussion. Instead, they have posttraumatic stress."

Returning service members face another challenge: the economy. Unemployment for young veterans is twenty percent, double the national average. That makes the transition back from war even more difficult.

A number of non-profit organizations are mobilizing to help. The Jericho Project is working on the housing shortage, helping veterans get the benefits they're entitled to and helping them find a place to call home. It is currently constructing two veterans residences that will offer permanent housing to veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of its shelters is already home for Specialist Pagan. He is one of the lucky ones.

"I have an apartment, and it was the first time, especially as a grown man that I've gotten a gift like this," Pagan says. "It was an amazing feeling. I have a place. This is what I call, it's my little home."

Tara Henry, the former chemical weapons specialist whose husband filed for divorce while she was on duty in Iraq, has also found a shelter. She lives in a cubicle at the Borden Avenue Veterans Shelter in Queens. And although she hasn't told her children that she is homeless, her eight-year-old daughter knows something isn't right.

"She took all the money that she had and said, 'Hey Mommy, this'll help you buy a house.' So I guess she knows that it costs."

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