Honorable Men on the Streets: John Kerry on Homeless Vets

John Kerry

hide captionSen. John Kerry (D-MA) greets veterans at a 2006 rally in Newtown, Pa.

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A new study shows that a disproportionate number of veterans vets are homeless. In special Veteran's Day conversation, Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts who served in Vietnam, talks about being a veteran and about how America can better take care of those who have served.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.

On a day of remembrance, tragedies both private and public, the mother of a victim of the Virginia Tech shootings talks about coping with her grief and her search for answers.

But first, we observe Veterans Day today. There's been a lot of talk this year about how our country takes care of its veterans. Earlier this year, news about inadequate care for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center sparked outrage across the country. Now, a new study indicates that a disproportionate number of the homeless are veterans, including those coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. We will hear some of their stories in a few minutes.

But first, we're joined now by Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and a veteran of the Vietnam War. He joins us on the phone from Boston. Welcome Senator, thanks for speaking with us.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I'm delighted to be with you. Thanks for focusing on this, on this day, especially.

MARTIN: And I'd like to begin by talking about this new report. It was released on Thursday by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. They found that nearly one out of every four homeless people in any given day is a veteran. And if you consider that only 11 percent of the adult population are veterans, it seems like there is something going on. So, I'd like to ask you, is this news to you? And what do you think is going wrong?

Sen. KERRY: No, it's not news to me. It's a part of a continuing trend which we've noticed over a period of time. In fact, a number of years back, very significant portion of people in the shelters were Vietnam era veterans and it's really carried on. And one of the, you know, there are a lot of reasons it carries on. Part of the problem is you got a lot of folks who've had repeated deployments. And some of these people with repeated deployments were either in the National Guard Reserve and they have found that the job they had has been completely, either eliminated or the small business they may have been part of have suffered because of their absences, so they've had difficulties. That's one group.

Another group are people who've come back. You know, initially, when the screening takes place overseas, and you know you're - it's what stands between you and coming home, a lot of them don't pipe up and tell people they've been having nightmares or having issues about their service and so forth. Number one, it's not part of the warrior ethic; and number two, it will delay you getting home. People drown it in one substance or another, but it winds up being substance abuse, and/or they have PTSD and other kinds of issues - stress issues.

We're working now with - to get answers from the DOD on how many soldiers have been affected by certain kind of injuries, particularly eye injuries. And we're providing 75 million, in the latest Appropriations Bill for new vouchers for the Veterans Affairs housing program to support that. Incidentally, the administration did not request that funding. We decided to put it in. So there's a real gap between what the administration is fighting for and what a lot of us are beginning to see is happening in the community.

MARTIN: You talked about the warrior ethic and not wanting to necessarily admit that you need help. Now, when you came home from the war - a very different time - do you feel that, I mean, all these years later, you know, we're a society that talks more about problems more openly. Men talk more now than they used to. Do you think anything has changed in that regard? Is it any greater willingness to speak out?

Sen. KERRY: Of course, absolutely. The Vietnam era veterans had to fight for almost everything they got. They had to go out and fight for the G.I. Bill extension. They had to fight for Agent Orange recognition. They had for outreach centers and the PTSD recognition. And the first centers were created as a consequence of the recognition of this problem in Vietnam veterans.

MARTIN: But you know, one thing that strikes me though,,, is that in Vietnam era, many veterans came home from very difficult service and then had to face, you know, public disapproval. There are people who, you know, were openly hostile to the degree that, you know, some veterans have told me, they didn't want to discuss their service. It strikes me that it's very different now that there is a sense that even if…

Sen. KERRY: That is enormously different. And it's one of the - yes.

MARTIN: Yeah. But even if the war is unpopular, there are people who - people understand that the veterans, those who served, should be respected and supported. And yet, you still find veterans having such struggle when they return and I just wonder why is the…

Sen. KERRY: It's a real contradiction. I totally agree with you. It's because there's a gap between the government policy and sort of that awareness. I will tell you that one of the great points of pride for Vietnam veterans is that the lesson of never confusing the war with the warrior has in fact been learned. And, and so, that sank in. America has done an extraordinary job of saying thank you to the veterans who are currently serving, to the soldiers who are serving. And I think a terrific job of being supportive of them and separating their feelings about the war itself from those who serve. The problem is the administration, despite all those lessons leaned about how people were mistreated before, has not applied them in terms of the budget. We have to put an additional $2 billion in, I think, last year, in order to help provide adequate care at the VA Hospitals. I mean, there are long lines at the hospitals. Many hospitals have waiting periods. Some of them, you have to travel unbelievable length of time to get to. It's just wrong.

MARTIN: Finally, Senator, I wanted to ask you - this Veterans Day, marks the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. As you, I'm sure, remember, very controversial at its inception, but very much loved now - destination for veterans and their families. Does this memorial have any special meaning to you?

Sen. KERRY: Oh, it has huge meaning. Look, that wall was controversial for about, you know, for the few weeks leading up to it's dedication. But I'll tell you, the day of that dedication, I was at it, that opposition just melted away. It's really quite an extraordinary memorial, because you walk down into it, more and more names of soldiers who are killed, sort of grow up beside you until they dominate you and they're up above your head. And then you get down to the center of the wall. And if you stand in the center of the wall, you can look up one direction east and the people are listed on the wall chronologically by the time of their being killed. So, if you were killed in a unit, that whole unit would be listed together on that particular panel. You look up the other side of the wall and you see - you could almost see the separation between Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and the time that people knew the war had gone wrong versus the time that it was sort of, you know, in that early confused state. And you just look at the numbers and names and it brings it home. I'll tell you, it's very touching.

MARTIN: John Kerry, senator for Massachusetts, a 2004 presidential candidate, Vietnam veteran. Senator, thank you so much for speaking with us. And if I may, thank you for your service.

Sen. KERRY: Thank you so much. Appreciate it and wish for a great Veterans Day to who've served and who are serving.

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