I am a veteran. A label only eight percent of the American population can claim. Like many before me, I enlisted into the military when I was eighteen years old, and I went on to serve a total of seven years on active duty. The military set my life on a completely different trajectory, and I am forever grateful for everything the service has given me. I am truly a better version of myself for having the experiences I did while serving, but I would be lying if I said my years in the military didn’t take a toll on me.
Sometime during my enlistment I developed an anxiety disorder which was often mistaken as a “Type-A” personality. I kept my mind busy by pouring myself into my work and I received counseling from my local mental health clinic. I was able to continue serving but when my enlistment term came to an end, I decided it was time to explore other avenues.
I was aware of the fact that suicide and homelessness rates are high among veterans, but I never thought I would be at risk for either. I had a solid plan: I was going to separate, go home, go to school. Easy and straightforward. However, I underestimated how taxing the transition from military to civilian life can be.
I sorely missed the camaraderie and sense of purpose I had while in the military. Despite having all of my family around for the first time in years, I was the loneliest I had ever been and with nothing to keep my mind busy, my anxiety worsened and soon developed into depression. I struggled with this feeling for nine months, but somehow, I mustered the energy and drive to apply to a university and become a full-time student.
I’m out in the world again and have found another version of the camaraderie and purpose that I was searching for. I was lucky. Despite feeling like I was alone, I wasn’t. I had a well-established support system of many friends and family. Sadly, this isn’t the case for all of our veterans. The number of veterans among the general population is relatively low, but it is high among the homeless community. As of this year, veterans make up 17% of the homeless demographic in the United States.
In January 2020, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that 580,466 people were affected by homelessness and 37,252 of them were veterans. In that same month, it was reported that 639 veterans were left unsheltered in the state of Michigan alone and the Housing and Urban Development 2019 Continuum of Care report accounted for 19 homeless veterans living in Washtenaw County, right here in our community.
But how can an entire group of people who are so honored in our nation be so overlooked? Well, there are a few risk factors that veterans are susceptible to. According to Greendoors.org, 50% of homeless veterans are struggling with mental illness and roughly 67% with substance abuse, and in some cases both. Also, many separate from the military and find themselves isolated without any kind of support network. The combination of these factors can create a difficult circumstance and inability to stay afloat, let alone make the difficult transition from military to civilian life.
Hal Klenk, Groundcover vendor and veteran, who first served as an Air Force medical technologist from 1964 through 1968, and then another four and half years in the Army, shared his thoughts on why he thinks veterans struggle to adjust outside of the military. “I think that for the most part, at least from my experience, there is not enough discussion about PTSD when [veterans] leave,” he said. “There should be someone to point resources out to them because it’s not that they’re not out there, they just need someone to point them in the right direction…People don’t want to talk about it, so you have to reach out and help them see that they need help.”
As Veterans Day approaches, honor our fallen heroes, but also look toward the ones that made it home. They didn’t pay the ultimate price, but they are paying — whether it’s their mental health, substance abuse, isolation or just missed time with family — and they need our attention. But there is hope.
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, there are three states and 82 communities that have successfully put an end to veteran homelessness. Their website states the criteria to be considered free of veteran homelessness are:
1. All veterans facing homelessness have been identified
2. Shelter has been provided to homeless veterans
3. Temporary housing is offered until permanent housing is available
4. The community has the capability to quickly provide housing to veterans in need
5. There are resources and plans ready to address veteran homelessness in the future
Veterans in need of assistance can call or visit their local VA Medical Center or the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at (877) 4AID-VET (877-424-3838). The Washtenaw Veterans Affairs office can be reached at 734-973-4540.