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Remembering veterans beyond Memorial Day

BUHS students form organization to help homeless veterans

BRATTLEBORO—Members of Students Supporting Veterans (SSV) discussed in social studies class the issue of American soldiers returning from war — to homelessness.

“Unacceptable,” said the 40 students involved with the fledgling organization at Brattleboro Union High School.

SSV is a student organization dedicated to helping homeless veterans in the community.

In documents, the students state their mission is to “raise public awareness of the plight of our veterans, to raise money to buy trailers as permanent homes, and to give direct assistance in maintaining these homes.”

“We’re just trying to take one more burden off their shoulders,” said Dana Alex, co-chair of SSV’s education committee.

The group aims to educate their home communities on the issues of homelessness for returning veterans and also on how the community can help.

In a meeting with members of SSV, students spoke of connections they had to soldiers. Experiences ranged from near-homelessness, to isolation, to sleeping with loaded guns under pillows.

Joamey Cancel, the organization’s co-webmaster, said a friend pointed a gun at his girlfriend after she woke him from a bad dream.

He hadn’t sought help, she said, because he wanted to go back overseas.

The student organization estimates that 62,000 to 100,000 veterans are homeless any given night in the United States. The students say that about 111 veterans in Vermont are homeless.

According to Kayla Boyd, SSV co-chair, the number of homeless veterans in Vermont increased by 30 between 2011 and 2012.

“Forty percent of homeless men are veterans, although veterans comprise only 34 percent of the general adult male population,” Boyd wrote in a letter. “A staggering 46 percent of homeless vets are age 45 or older.”

SSV is affiliated with Home At Last (HAL), a Brattleboro-based organization that purchases mobile homes for veterans.

HAL has five mobile homes: three located Brattleboro, one in Westminster, and one in New Hampshire.

According to Boyd, Brattleboro tends to be a liberal and anti-war community, and supporting veterans is seen by some as supporting war.

“It’s not about war,” she said. “It’s about the people who fought in the war.”

Co-chair Trevor Houle said the students plan to conduct spring and fall clean-ups at the mobile homes. They intend that their help and participation extend beyond fundraising and leaving.

“You can’t just leave somebody who may have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder),” Houle said. “Leaving would be like what happened when they got home [from the war].”

In Houle’s opinion, it’s “unacceptable” that some veterans become homeless after serving their country.

It can be hard to get solid data on homelessness, said Boyd and Houle, as veterans dealing with homelessness tend to move a lot and not ask for help.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 95 percent of veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have some form of PTSD, said Amiee Johnston, student representative on the HAL board.

Veterans “gave up so much,” said Johnston: sacrifices such as “mental sanity,” “time,” and facing death.

In a letter, Johnston wrote, “There are many reasons why we have so many homeless veterans in America, many of which are for the same reasons as homeless non-veterans.”

“Some specific issues are that they receive little to no support from their family or the community when they return, causing them to isolate themselves from the community,” she wrote.

SSV’s faculty advisor Tim Kipp, social studies teacher at BUHS, said that the students quickly took action after learning about problems facing veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

“No one should be homeless,” the students said to Kipp.

According to Kipp, there are differences between recent veterans and those who returned home after World War II.

Both groups returned home to different Americas, he said.

World War II veterans returned to an America committed to building a thriving economy and a growing middle class, said Kipp, adding that the GI Bill, passed as the war was ending, served as “an amazing piece of social legislation” that helped veterans.

“It’s just the opposite now,” he said.

Filling the need

Robert Miller co-founded Home At Last with initial financial backing from his long-time friend, Diana Bingham.

They started the non-profit organization five years ago to purchase mobile homes for homeless veterans.

The 89-year-old Miller, a combat veteran of World War II, recently stepped down from the board of directors.

According to Miller, it costs about $7,000 to $8,000 annually to maintain each mobile home. The homes cost between $35,000 to $40,000 to purchase.

The veterans housed in the HAL homes qualify for Section 8 housing vouchers, he added. This qualification helps offset the veterans’ rent and HAL’s expenses.

Donations to HAL go towards purchasing new mobile homes, he said.

Miller added that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has cut back, and in some cases stopped, assigning Section 8 vouchers. Without these vouchers, Home At Last is not sure whether it can purchase more mobile homes.

The idea of finding homes for veterans came incrementally to Miller over many years as he witnessed what he said were “beat up GIs” in the community.

“What does it matter if there’s 97 homeless veterans in Vermont or 102?” Miller asked.

Miller said the prevalence of “phony statistics” around homeless veterans upsets him.

Instead, Miller wants people to think about the uncertainty of their lives if they had no place to sleep, take a bath, hang their clothes, or cook a can of soup.

“That’s way more important than statistics,” he said.

“It’s an obscenity,” said Miller. “We don’t give a damn about people who are in real deep trouble.”

He said people in our society would rather go to the movies or buy new clothes.

All homeless veterans have a different story to tell about how and why they have no roof above their heads, Miller said.

Some elements of the stories may prove similar, he added, like becoming isolated from family and friends, or struggling with addictions, or PTSD.

The physical or mental challenges facing veterans seem unsolvable on their own, said Miller: “Try becoming sober without a permanent landing zone.”

But with a home base, “maybe then they can hold still while somebody talks to them about going on the wagon,” he said.

Miller clenched his fists as he spoke about the recent federal sequester that has cut funding to many social safety nets.

The government sees these people struggling financially and realizes they “can’t really fight back, so screw them,” Miller said. “There’s something missing in our value set.”

Miller says veterans of more recent wars return with more instances of PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, which require different types of care.

But, he said, its more than that. Today’s veterans have not been nearly as well treated as the men and women who returned home after World War II.

Miller said that the overall situation in the Middle East is little better now, a decade after U.S. forces first arrived in Iraq and Afghanistan. “[The result is] the poor bums that come home are treated like pariahs, like it’s their fault,” he said.

Many flags

Richard Guthrie, Commander of American Legion Post 5 and Vietnam-era veteran, said the Legion financially supports multiple programs that help homeless veterans and is “a big voice” fighting for the rights of veterans.

The winter overflow shelter at the First Baptist Church on Main Street and Home At Last have received donations from Post 5, he said.

Post 5 also donated to victims after the 2011 Brooks House fire, because Legion members knew some of the people left homeless were also veterans.

The Legion’s membership numbers are down due to attrition and fewer veterans joining the organization, said Guthrie.

In Guthrie’s experience, the vets from the 1991 Gulf War and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars don’t seem to want to join social service organizations.

He estimates Post 5 loses about 50 members annually. As membership dwindles, unfortunately, so will the financial support, he added.

“The ripple effect is a big concern right now,” Guthrie said.

In the past week, said Guthrie, Legion volunteers decorated more than 1,000 veterans’ graves in the three cemeteries where Post 5 places flags.

Guthrie said he stepped back during the day and looked down the rows of gravestones.

“There were quite a few flags,” he said.

“Every person is different in their reaction to what the war did to them,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie recently read letters written by World War II veterans to their families in Brattleboro. Guthrie, a child during World War II, knew only that something terrible was happening in the world outside his hometown.

As an adult, he came to know many of the letter writers who returned to Brattleboro and “served their community well.”

“During the war, they were scared,” said Guthrie. “They didn’t like what they were doing but they had to do it.”

At the end of World War II, the community opened its arms and welcomed the troops home, he said.

There was a lack of housing in town after the war, he said. The town responded by building “Veterans Village,” 26 units on South Main Street on the site where the Brattleboro Little League field now stands.

Building the new housing took planning and work but opened doors for returning soldiers, said Guthrie.

“It was a show of gratitude,” he said.

Guthrie contrasts this homecoming with the protests and scorn that greeted many Vietnam veterans. They were never welcomed back to the community as they should have been, he said.

He believes many Vietnam veterans continue to suffer.

The homecomings for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are better, but lack fanfare.

“We try not to make the same mistakes [of history],” said Guthrie. “But I think we’re behind the eight ball a lot of the time.”

Some veterans wait for a long time for the government to process their disability paperwork. Last year, Guthrie heard of a veteran whose disability paperwork was finalized in 2012 — after waiting 22 years.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #204 (Wednesday, May 22, 2013).

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