You hear it in airports, at Starbucks, in the grocery store. You see it on social media – especially around Veterans Day. Thank you for your service…..and most of us do what is convenient, what is easy, buy a cup of coffee or a meal, pay for their groceries. We do what won’t smell bad or require us to show true hospitality to someone living on the edges of society. On any given night in America 60,000 veterans go to sleep under a bridge, behind a van in a parking lot, on a park bench. Some of this tragedy is the result of alcoholism and drug addiction, some from other mental disorders that plague our Veteran community. Of the 1.7 Million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 300,000 or a whopping 20% suffer from a significant mental disorder. These illnesses include Post Traumatic Stress, Acute Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These hidden illnesses devour men and women from the inside out. No external scars or missing limbs, no evidence of what cripples these Vets and these are the ones who most often you will find on the street corner with a sign, or sleeping under the bridge. As with any human problem in society, there are no simple or easy solutions. We can shake our fists at Washington and think that if only the VA hospitals were fully funded – blame the President or the congress, or the VA. If only when we made decisions to go to war we add the medical and mental illness costs up front and let both congress and constituents know exactly what that cost might be. That taking care of these men and women when they come home is an up front cost of war, not something we scramble – beg and plead for after they come home. That is only one piece of the puzzle….just as government funds alone don’t solve homelessness and hunger, or crime, or under performing schools – the multitude of organizations that serve Vets, and religious or community organizations and especially individuals, are all part of the solution.
Personally I have bought coffee, lunch, groceries for the man or woman in uniform that I encounter in daily life. Its a gesture and I believe it is authentic and appreciated. More recently, I have discovered what it really means to thank a veteran for their service. I moved into a new neighborhood and was greeted by the neighborhood “town crier”. His name is Vince. To protect his privacy and honor his service, I do not include his last name or the selfie we took. I first noticed that Vince had to shuffle across the street. It was his very own dance and he was open and honest about it. He said he had anxiety disorders, that he had OCD – oil spots and cracks in the asphalt were particularly difficult. He had particular pathways he was compelled to take when coming up and down the driveway. He couldn’t pass anything over metal (fences, car doors) and rather had to go around the metal. He had therapists and doctors but they were 20 miles away and he didn’t drive, so he relied on a shuttle that had very specific times to get to and from his appointments. If he had anything more significant (like surgeries after a crushed pelvis), the VA hospital was nearly 60 miles. He could not handle being on trains or buses so it could take him weeks just to get the transportation to coincide with his medical appointments. His VA housing benefit was $800/month and he has some additional income from disability. When he is under stress, Vince will talk endlessly and try to justify his differences by getting into extreme detail about why he acted out in a particular way, or can and can’t do particular things. For instance, I would get Vince groceries if I was at the store and he needed to be sure that I used paper bags only, that I put the bag in the trunk a particular way and that I remove it a particular way. It took patience to try and understand or predict what would set him off but eventually I learned Vince’s dance.
Vince lived in a small studio/guest house at the end of the street. The front house was also occupied by tenants and the owner/landlord lived out of state. Under the circumstances he did exceptionally well, due to his extreme intelligence and friendly attitude. He started taking my trash cans to the curb on Mondays and putting them back on Tuesdays. It was his way of being valuable and it could take him a very long time to do this otherwise simple task. One day he was in the laundry room that was shared with the front tenant at his home. Something he was putting in the washer had bugs that came crawling out and he panicked, taking off all of his clothes right there in the laundry room as the other tenant opened the door. Needless to say, the landlord, who had been trying to get Vince out for a long time, now had a basis and a reason. The next few months was a daily battle between Vince and the landlord who had threatened to retain the security deposit which would have been a huge loss for Vince. At one point, he moved and sold all of his things when the VA negotiated a stay and bought him another few weeks. Now Vince was in the in between – facing the cutoff date for moving, trying to get new VA subsidized housing which is now 80 -100 miles away, and trying to find temporary housing. These are complicated and difficult life situations for anyone – and Vince was alternately solution oriented and panic…the panic amplifying his symptoms and increasing his fear.
I came home last night and Vince was in my driveway. I had barely stepped out of my car and he was pulling out the latest email from the landlord saying that if he vacated and turned the key into the front tenant, he could get his $1000 back. It was clear he needed support to walk through this and his conditions were running rampant. In my best business clothes we walked down to his small studio which was remarkably clean and empty. He began to obsessively clean the apartment, the floors, the refrigerator – on his hands and knees with an old sock and some comet. I took a broom and swept everything out and took pictures of each room in case the landlord ever came back to him – proof that despite his often scrambled thinking and compulsions, he is an upstanding citizen. After an hour, we went to the front house, I gave them the key and Vince began to describe each and every tiny thing that was wrong in the house. The woman was very kind – her husband wouldn’t look me in the eyes. Perhaps shame lived just underneath his judgement as he had been rather cruel to Vince. After all – his wife walked into the laundry room and found Vince naked – what’s a guy to do? So Vince got his $1,000, the landlord can turn his studio over and get a “normal” tenant and the nice young couple in front didn’t have to worry about a mentally ill veteran living in the back house. As I was leaving, I thanked the young woman and her husband turned to me and said, “Why does a regular woman like you hang out with a nut job like him?”
I said to him – when you see a man or woman in uniform at Starbucks, or in the airport, do you thank them for your service? In perfect empty flag waving style, he of course – I love America. I replied, “tonight and in the past since I moved here, my friendship with Vince, how I treat him, the insignificant things that I do to help him are how I thank him for his service. He spent some years in the Gulf War making sure that you can love America. The least you could do is treat him with a tiny bit of American respect.”
Volunteer at a VA hospital, when you see a homeless or mentally ill Vet, do more than give them pocket change…..engage with them, find out where and when they served, if they need a ride or help wading through the bureaucracy and multitude of programs. Find out where you can be of service. Don’t be afraid to reach out and touch them. Educate yourself about what is available.
Vince is moving today into a religious based boarding house for men. He is afraid – its in a bad neighborhood and new people, new places, new routines are really hard for him. I will miss Vince, despite his lack of boundaries and peculiar ways. He can quote the bible chapter and verse, he is very bright and very generous.
We can be a part of the solution. Don’t ignore them – don’t scoff them. Demonstrate your patriotic gratitude. Be kind, be generous, engage…..