A New Generation Of Vets Faces Challenges At Home

  • Hide caption
    Homeless veterans, their families and volunteers line up for food at Stand Down, an annual event hosted by the Veterans Village of San Diego. The Veterans Administration estimates that 67,000 vets are homeless nationwide.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Stand Down, a three-day event supporting 1,000 veterans, is hosted in a tent city on the grounds of San Diego High School. It's a one-stop shop to help homeless vets get a fresh start. It offers health care, addiction therapy, showers, clothes and even an open-air court with pro bono lawyers to clear up fines and misdemeanors.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Dr. Jon Nachison speaks during the 25th opening ceremony of the Stand Down event. While the population is mostly from the Vietnam era, newer, younger faces have started to trickle in as vets return from Afghanistan and Iraq.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Nachison, a Vietnam veteran, is the founder and director of Stand Down.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Veterans stand in the center of the grounds, surrounded by American flags.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Bob Korchnak, a former Navy battleship sailor, gets a shave and a haircut after traveling from Ohio to take part in Stand Down. Korchnak was arrested numerous times in San Diego for panhandling and came back to take advantage of the court program to deal with outstanding legal issues.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Jill Millard volunteers in honor of her son Gregory, who was killed in action while deployed with the Army in Iraq.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Carlos Laguna did two tours with the Marines in Iraq. He says post-traumatic stress led to heavy drinking after he finished serving, and he credits Veterans Village of San Diego for helping him get clean.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Homeless vets wait for their legal packets and their court-appointed attorneys before going before Judge Roger Crauel. Crauel has been holding court at Stand Down for several years.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Steve Binder, the County of San Diego deputy public defender, has been helping veterans with their legal troubles for more than 15 years. He helps run the court, where veterans can free themselves from a cycle of legal troubles.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    A legal courtroom in session.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Nathaniel Roberti came to Stand Down to enroll in the Veterans Village San Diego residential program, which helps get homeless vets off the streets. A judge gave him that option instead of prison.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Hide caption
    Chris Stavran lives in the Veterans Village of San Diego residential program instead of serving prison time for child abuse. He attributes his heavy drug use to post-traumatic stress.
    David Gilkey/NPR

1 of 13

View slideshow i

Homeless veterans of the Vietnam War have been a face of American poverty for decades, and now some veterans of a younger generation are dealing with the same difficult issues.

"I had my apartment up until 2011," says Joshua, a 28-year-old Navy vet, who asked not to give his last name because of the stigma of being homeless. "[I] couldn't keep up with the rent; I did a little couch surfing and then ended up on the street for a while."

The economy is tough, and he was surprised that his skills in the Navy didn't translate into anything marketable once he mustered out. He says he wasn't equipped to deal with the civilian world after years of military structure and support.

"It was a total life change and I was like, 'I don't understand, I served, I have all these skills and no one is willing to hire me,' " he says.

Joshua, 28, had trouble adjusting to civilian life in a tough economy after eight years in the Navy. He asked to not share his last name because of the stigma tied with being homeless. i i

Joshua, 28, had trouble adjusting to civilian life in a tough economy after eight years in the Navy. He asked to not share his last name because of the stigma tied with being homeless. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Joshua, 28, had trouble adjusting to civilian life in a tough economy after eight years in the Navy. He asked to not share his last name because of the stigma tied with being homeless.

Joshua, 28, had trouble adjusting to civilian life in a tough economy after eight years in the Navy. He asked to not share his last name because of the stigma tied with being homeless.

David Gilkey/NPR

Joshua has been living at a residence run by Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD), and recently he joined about 1,000 homeless vets at an annual event called Stand Down. It's a tent city on the grounds of San Diego High School, where, for three days, homeless vets can sleep on dry cots and eat warm meals.

A Range Of Services

Veterans Village has been holding the event for 25 years. Local and national charities provide medical checkups, dental care, showers and new clothes.

There's even an open-air court to clear up outstanding warrants that might make it hard to get a job. Organizers say Stand Down aims to clear all the obstacles that could prevent a fresh start.

The event still primarily serves veterans from the Vietnam War, though it now includes some younger faces.

The majority of Iraq and Afghanistan vets at this summer's Stand Down are not homeless, but volunteers there to help out. Mike Judd did two combat tours in Iraq, and he now works at Veterans Village. It doesn't surprise him that many of his contemporaries are hitting hard times.

"Right out of high school, now they're a soldier, now they're a Marine," Judd says. "They spend months, years in combat, in military bases, in barracks, and then they're given like a week to become a civilian. I know very little, but I saw this coming."

The Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have recently stepped up efforts to combat the problem, including a $100 million program announced in July. The VA estimates that about 67,000 vets are homeless, a 12 percent reduction from the previous year.

Paul, a former sniper with the Marines, did two tours in Iraq and says it was hard to reconnect with the civilian world. He declined to give his full name. i i

Paul, a former sniper with the Marines, did two tours in Iraq and says it was hard to reconnect with the civilian world. He declined to give his full name. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Paul, a former sniper with the Marines, did two tours in Iraq and says it was hard to reconnect with the civilian world. He declined to give his full name.

Paul, a former sniper with the Marines, did two tours in Iraq and says it was hard to reconnect with the civilian world. He declined to give his full name.

David Gilkey/NPR

The White House has announced a plan for no vets to be homeless by 2015, but it recognizes that the new generation of vets, many of them exposed to multiple combat tours, has its own set of problems.

A Sense Of Alienation

"I kind of feel separated," says a two-tour Iraq vet named Paul, who also declined to give his full name. "I don't like most people, I don't have many friends. It's not that I don't like normal civilians, it's that I can't identify with them."

Paul, a Marine sniper, says combat left him with post-traumatic stress. He came to Stand Down to apply for a spot in the Veterans Village residential program.

A judge ordered him to choose between that or prison for his second drunken driving charge, when police also discovered a loaded gun in his car. Paul admits he drinks too much, and he also admits that he misses the thing that traumatizes him.

"You can't get quite that rush, that feeling on the edge that you get in combat," he says. "It sounds kind of twisted, but I enjoyed it very much. Save the fact that I lost some friends and lot of friends got maimed. But you know if I could, I'd go back right now."

But when he gets out of Veterans Village, Paul will have to learn to interact with the civilian world, which he still finds incomprehensible.

"You have a military at war, and a nation at the mall," he says. "What [are] peoples' priorities especially in my age bracket? All they care about is Facebook, the Kardashians, pop culture [and] their iPhone."

At the end of the Stand Down weekend, Paul did land a space at Veterans Village San Diego. After about a year there, he might still not relate to the crowds at the mall, but he may figure out a way to deal with them.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.