Saturday, May 20, 2006

Some Iraq war vets go homeless after return to US

Some Iraq war vets go homeless after return to US
By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The nightmare of Iraq was bad enough for Vanessa Gamboa. Unprepared for combat beyond her basic training, the supply specialist soon found herself in a firefight, commanding a handful of clerks.

"They promoted me to sergeant. I knew my job but I didn't know anything about combat. So I'm responsible for all these people and I don't know what to tell them but to duck," Gamboa said.

The battle, on a supply delivery run, ended without casualties, and it did little to steel Gamboa for what awaited her back home in Brooklyn.

When the single mother was discharged in April, after her second tour in Iraq, she was 24 and had little money and no place to live. She slept in her son's day-care center.

Gamboa is part of a small but growing trend among U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- homelessness.

On any given night the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) helps 200 to 250 of them, and more go uncounted. They are among nearly 200,000 homeless veterans in America, largely from the Vietnam War.

Advocates say the number of homeless veterans is certain to grow, just as it did in the years following the Vietnam and Gulf wars, as a consequence of the stresses of war and inadequate job training.

Homeless veterans have remained in the shadows of the national debate about Iraq, although the issue may gain traction from the film "When I Came Home," which won an award this month for best New York-made documentary at the city's Tribeca Film Festival.

The documentary tells the story of Iraq war veteran Herold Noel as he lived in his car. It will get a screening in June at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, a California Democrat, calls it a "national disgrace" that homelessness among veterans has not been solved and held an informal hearing on Thursday to highlight the issue.

"We've seen the same thing with Agent Orange and Gulf War syndrome," Filner said of ailments from prior wars. "The bureaucracy is denying that there's anything wrong. First it's deny, deny, deny. Then they admit it's a small problem. And later they admit it's a widespread problem.

"We're not talking about a lot of money (to solve the problem) compared with overall spending on the war in Iraq. We're spending a billion dollars every two and a half days," he told Reuters.


One theme of the documentary is that veterans who risked their lives in war are too easily discarded by society once they are out of the military. The film shows Noel being denied housing by New York City's housing agency.

Gamboa had a similar experience.

"They put me in this roach-infested hotel. I was there for 10 days," Gamboa said. "Then they said I wasn't eligible to stay in a shelter because I could stay with my sister, who lives in a studio apartment with her husband. And I haven't spoken to her in six years."

Now her luck is improving.

Unlike many low-ranking soldiers, Gamboa received army training with civilian applications -- logistics -- and started a job with a fancy Fifth Avenue clothing store this week.

And despite an Army snafu that nearly denied her U.S. citizenship, the Guatemalan-born Gamboa, who moved to Brooklyn as a child, took her oath before the U.S. flag on Friday.

Military recruiters target poor neighborhoods like Gamboa's Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Young adults with few job skills join the Army. When they get out, many have fallen behind their contemporaries, experts say.

The stresses of combat and military life contribute to post traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and mental illness, which are especially taboo subjects to soldiers trained not to admit failure easily.

About half of all homeless veterans suffer from mental illness, and more than two-thirds suffer from alcohol or drug abuse problems, the VA says.

Gamboa has avoided those pitfalls, but female veterans are three times more likely to become homeless than women in the general population, the American Journal of Public Health reported.

Repeated deployments -- a hallmark of the Iraq war -- and separation from family can also portend future problems.

"Then the downward spiral begins with substance abuse and problems with the law," said Amy Fairweather of Iraq Veteran, which helps war veterans in San Francisco.

"If you wanted to put together all the repercussions that put people at risk for homelessness, you couldn't do better than the Iraq war."