Local and national leaders are calling a recent rise in homeless veterans "a disgrace."
A new report on homelessness shows that one out of evey four homeless persons are veterans of the U.S. military services, according to Senator Tom Harkin.
While veterans make up only 11 percent of the population, they account for 26 percent of those who are homeless, and the data shows that Iraq war veterans are becoming homeless at a much faster rate than did veterans of Vietnam.
"It's not right for our returning heroes to be left out in the cold by their government," Harkin said in a statement to the Pilot-Tribune. "We cannot make the same mistakes with the veterans of this generation that we did with the veterans of my administration."
Post-traumatic stress is a major contributor to the problem of veteran homelessness, Harkin feels.
Congress and the Bush Administration should be expected to act immediately, said Harkin, who is co-sponsoring the Homes for Heroes Act, to ensure that Housing and Urban Development programs are targeting low-income veterans and their families.
The goverment should also act to improve military medical facilities, and to help the VA provide better care - especially for traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress.
Buena Vista County Veterans Services officer Clinton Hoferman said that he has been seeing many veterans and helping them to fill out claims for post-traumatic stress.
"Oh my, this is a real situation. So many of them don't want to see me, or they don't want to talk about it, but when I do get them in a room alone, it does start to come out," he said. "I'll ask them, 'Do you mean to tell me that you don't wake up in the middle of the night and sit straight up in bed sweating, and that you don't have terrible dreams?' and it will start to come pouring out."
Providing services for these veterans, who are continuing to flow home from Iraq and Afghanistan, is vital, Hoferman believes.
So is making sure they will have job when they get home.
"I think it is completely dirty that we have soldiers coming home and their employers will not give them their jobs back. This is very different than the World War II-Korea era, when people were promised that their jobs would be waiting when they came home, and the employers meant it."
There haven't been a great many such cases reported locally, but it does happen, and elsewhere, it has been more common. "It is a rotten thing. If you really pushed it, the law would require that they are given some job back, but for a lot of people, they are basically having to start over becase they served their countrry," Hoferman said.
The Buena Vista veteran's officer has been asked to calculate homelessness among veterans in the county, but he doesn't see that as the real problem.
"Believe it or not, I don't think we have any homeless veterans here, and I have searched for them. It may be more of a big-city issue. Most of our veterans of working age are working, and there are always a few who just don't want a job or any obligations and are choosing the situation they are in," Hoferman said.
He also said that definitions may inflate the homelessness numbers. "In some cases, we have veterans who are quite young coming home from Iraq, who may have gone right out of high school. They are returning to live with their parents or work on the family farm, and may even partially support the parents. But the way the statistics are done, they don't have a separate address so they are considered to not have a home."
One area that needs immediate government response is the sad rate at which veterans claims are being processed, according to Hoferman.
"Two years ago when I went to Washington, D.C., I was told that they were behind by 550,000 claims - but they were supposedly hiring more people to get it taken care of. Then when I went this year, they were behind by 858,000 claims."
In some cases, it is taking over a year for a local veteran to even have their case seen by an official, Hoferman said.
This is not preventing medical care from being given, but it does have a big impact on cases such as veterans with disabilities who are applying for pension benefits.
"They need those pensions, and they are basically living hand-to-mouth until they are able to get the government to look at their claims," Hoferman said.
One local veteran, for example, is unable to tolerate being around groups of people, and finds it difficult to maintain employment. Others with some disability have been able to find limited work at places like Wal-Mart while they wait for their due benefits.
There is good news, Hoferman adds. Some local veterans have just reported receiving letters announcing an upcoming increase in their education benefits under the G.I. Bill. Momentum is also growing for a tax exemption, services and a unique medal for Cold War era veterans in some states.
Veterans in the county with concerns, or needing help to apply for benefits, may visit the county veterans services office in the courthouse from 9-4 Tuesdays and Thursday, or call 749-2562.