Honorable Men on the Streets - Part II

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Former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Ed Dorn, continues the discussion on America's homeless veterans.


We're going to turn now to Ed Dorn. He's a professor of public policy at the University of Texas. He's also the former Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. He joins from his office at the University of Texas in Austin. Welcome Professor, thanks for speaking with us.

Professor ED DORN (Public Policy, University of Texas): Thanks a lot, Michel.

MARTIN: And I'll just start with the same question I asked Senator Kerry. Were you surprised by the report?

Prof. DORN: I was a little bit surprised, particularly by the proportions. Both the GAO and the report from the National Center to alleviate homelessness says that about a quarter of the people who are homeless are veterans. That is a very disturbing number and it shows us that a lot of our veterans have fallen to that tattered safety net.

MARTIN: And let me talk to you about something that surprised me. The report says that veterans are different from the general population and that they're more likely to be male, White and more economically secure. It says that they have higher rates of employment and higher median income than non-veterans. So it seems contradictory to find out that they're also disproportionately among the homeless. Why might that be?

Prof. DORN: For very, very long time, we've had the idea that a veteran who return without physical injuries ought to be able to move back in to his civilian life - and I say his, advisably, because most of history, our veterans have all been men - ought to be able to move back in to civilian life and forget about all the nastiness of war.

I think we're going to have to start re-looking that, to take more seriously the idea that post-traumatic stress affects large numbers of people and that people who have seen combat suffer the effects of that for a very, very long time. And the large percentage of homeless people who are veterans, I think, provides some evidence to that.

MARTIN: The study also pointed to housing costs.

Prof. DORN: Sure.

MARTIN: And I wondered, though, if part of the issue is that the skills of people acquire in military service offer some reason not translating well into the civilian labor market in a way that allows them to meet the current market obligations. And I wonder if that is the case? I don't know. Is the issue that there ought to be some help on the housing side or is of something that should happen during active duty military service to better prepare people for reentry into civilian life?

Prof. DORN: We need to do both. The services usually do provide some modest support for veterans or for soldiers who are about to leave the service. Let's face it, quite often, when a soldier takes off the uniform, he or she thinks that's it. I don't want to have anymore to do with this military stuff. Let me get on with my civilian life. So there needs to be more aggressive outreach to people who are leaving the service. That, I think, is one of the things that's come up in a couple of reports recently, that we just haven't connected the various forms of support for - that available service members.

MARTIN: Finally, professor, I wanted to talk to you about one other thing I asked Senator Kerry. He - we talked about how that - since Vietnam, the country seems to have changed its attitude about supporting the troops, even in the midst of an unpopular war. Now, you kind of go between worlds, as it were. You're on college campuses. You're also, you know, engaged with the military. Do you think that that's true? Do you think that the country's changed its attitude about the troops?

Prof. DORN: It probably has, but there was a very good op-ed piece in the Washington Post this past Sunday by a young man who had serve in Iraq and is now enrolled at Georgetown. And what he says is, listen, this war is so far removed from the consciousness of most Americans that they just don't even think about it. It's not like Vietnam, which was an everyday thing for lots of Americans, partly because of the prominence of the draft. So in a sense, it's very easy for us to take a generous or magnanimous view of soldiers. We can thank them when we pass them in the airport. But we have absolutely no sense of what they've been through and the depth of gratitude we really should owe these soldiers. And that's what's showing up in our failure to support veterans adequately once they leave.

MARTIN: Edwin Dorn is professor of Public Policy at the University of Texas. He's the former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. He joined us from his office in Austin. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. DORN: Thank you, Michel.

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