RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
For many young Americans, joining the military is a path out of poverty, a path that can be blocked if they come back from war with an injury, especially if they go home to impoverished neighborhoods or towns. As part of NPR's Span of War series, Joseph Shapiro followed one soldier who returned with a common psychiatric injury of war.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:
Herold Noel pulls his red Jeep into a dead-end street on a tiny block in Brooklyn lined with tiny brick row houses. It looks like something out of a storybook. Last winter, Herold Noel was homeless.
Mr. HEROLD NOEL (Former Soldier): This area we're in right now, this little dead-end, this is where I would park my car and go to sleep.
SHAPIRO: One night was different.
Mr. NOEL: This is where I almost took my life. Here's the same spot--parked right here with a gun to my head, drunk. I almost took my life right here.
SHAPIRO: Herold Noel came back from Iraq and his life fell apart. On that cold night just before Christmas, he was ready to give up.
Mr. NOEL: I closed my eyes, pulled the trigger, and I just passed out. I woke up, the bullet was on the floor, and I just drove on from there. I was sober and I was like, `Man, I'm still alive.' I was saying, `I don't want to be alive,' because it was cold. It was snowing. I didn't have my kids with me no more. My wife was stressed out. My wife wanted to leave me. Like, everything was crumbling and I just wanted to end my life, and here's where I went to end it.
SHAPIRO: Herold Noel has post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a psychiatric condition that sometimes results from exposure to danger. He said he'd never heard of PTSD. He just knew he was angry all the time. Anger is one symptom of PTSD. Drinking is a common way of dealing with that anger. When he first got back from Iraq, Noel, his wife and three kids lived with his wife's family, 10 adults and children in two-room apartment.
Mr. NOEL: I was getting into fights with her family and arguing. That's when the PTSD kept getting in the way; frustrated at not having a place to stay. And plus, you have a temper problem. You don't even know what it is, why you lashing out at people, why you want to kill people. Because they had other kids in the house, so I didn't want to scare the other kids, so I just took myself out of the situation.
SHAPIRO: In Iraq, Herold Noel drove one of the most dangerous truck routes in the world. He carried 2,500 gallons of explosive fuel. Noel came home to Brooklyn and applied for truck driving jobs. He got turned down flat. He didn't have the special license he needed to drive a big truck in New York.
Mr. NOEL: I thought it was going to be gravy. I thought I'd get accepted for a job the minute I put my name on the application, but it didn't happen that way. I didn't have no job. I didn't have a place to stay. I felt ashamed. I felt like I was being disrespected.
SHAPIRO: Herold Noel was falling back into the one place he feared most, into poverty. He'd started life poor. He'd lived in a rundown part of Brooklyn with other immigrants from Haiti. Herold Noel saw some of his friends succeed. They were the ones who went to college. Others fell into the easy promise of selling drugs. Noel's future was unclear. He'd already dropped out of college. The Army offered opportunity.
Mr. NOEL: The recruiter walked up to me and promised me all these things. I said--I told the recruiter I got kids to take care of. Then the recruiter start saying--showing me brochures of on-post housing and how beautiful it is. My kids would be taken care of. My eyes just opened up. They said if I want the American Dream, join the military, and that's what I wanted.
SHAPIRO: Noel was 19 when he signed up. He says the Army kept those promises to him. Most of all, it gave him a set of values to live by.
Mr. NOEL: Honor, respect, loyalty, selfless service, courage; those are the values that was installed in me by the military and those are the values I'm going to live and die by.
SHAPIRO: But he says he came home to a country that didn't seem to share those values, to a neighborhood where it seemed only drug dealers were getting ahead. He was bitter, too, that he couldn't get the help he needed. It'd take the Department of Veterans Affairs 18 months to declare him disabled by PTSD. And the VA couldn't give him what he really needed, a job and a place to live. Noel turned to a Brooklyn community group called Black Veterans for Social Justice. Ricky Singh runs housing programs there.
Mr. RICKY SINGH (Black Veterans for Social Justice): Soldiers believe that when you ask for help it means you fail in a mission. Usually when they do seek out the services, they've already fallen through the crack, they're already homeless, like Herold, who came to us not facing homelessness. Herold was already homeless for a couple of months.
SHAPIRO: The day they met, Singh gave Noel bad news. He didn't qualify for public housing. It was later that night that Noel sat in his parked car with his gun to his head. The next morning, Singh tracked him down and gave him money to buy Christmas presents for his kids.
Today, Herold Noel isn't homeless anymore. He's living in an apartment thanks to an anonymous donor. The VA estimates that veterans make up 23 percent of the nation's homeless. On any given night, that's about 200,000 people on the street. Homelessness is not a big problem among veterans of the Iraq War. If it ever is, Ricky Singh says you'll see it first in poor neighborhoods like Herold Noel's.
Mr. SINGH: When they return home, those economic conditions that pushed them towards the military have probably gotten worse. And then they're coming back to very fragile family situations. And families generally think, `You're a soldier. Soldiers know how to take care of themselves. If you have a problem, the government will take care of you.'
SHAPIRO: Singh says his group has helped about a hundred veterans back from Iraq. About two dozen needed a permanent place to live.
Herold Noel takes me to the neighborhood where he grew up. He's 25 now. He's tall and lean. He seems to almost disappear in his black baseball cap and baggy clothes. He drives to a housing project in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The brick buildings are pocked with bullet holes. In the middle is a courtyard of concrete. Residents have a nickname for it, the front page, as in things that happen to you here wind up in the newspaper.
Mr. NOEL: This is my cousin Jonathan right here.
JONATHAN: I call this guy the young reckless, aka Big Reckless, gang--Crip, the kind of person I am. The rules I live by: I'm loved by few, hated by many but respected by all.
SHAPIRO: Jonathan's tall, good-looking with dark skin. He's dressed in black. He keeps his neck twisted like a corkscrew. He never stops looking over his shoulder. Herold Noel is trying to pull himself out of poverty and his cousin, too. He's talked to Jonathan about joining the Army.
Mr. NOEL: My cousin is like a prime example of how I was and what I joined the military to get out of.
JONATHAN: My cousin says he been in the Army and came back changed. Because before, man, he was on some real street (censored). I do the same thing in the streets every day.
Mr. NOEL: You're about to see an example of what I try not to be. You see this girl walking down here? She...
JONATHAN: You got it, girl.
Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible).
SHAPIRO: A woman in a short tank top dances up the sidewalk. She sways her arms over her head. She's singing and talking to herself. She's got deep black circles under her eyes.
Mr. NOEL: ...(Unintelligible). She used to be a model.
JONATHAN: A model.
Mr. NOEL: You know what I'm saying? Now she's on crack.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Pain's just ...(unintelligible), commits no crime. I pull in on time. Oh, how you seeing me now? Hmm. When I take a hit...
Mr. NOEL: Now you understand why I joined the military to get out of? Because my kids don't need to see that, man.
JONATHAN: In the hood, that's what we call rock stars.
Unidentified Woman: I am a rock star.
JONATHAN: She smokes more than smoke itself.
Unidentified Woman: Three weeks, no sleep.
JONATHAN: Look at her eyes. You feel like a raccoon?
Mr. NOEL: That's a crackhead.
SHAPIRO: Jonathan tells her to give him money.
Unidentified Woman: ...(Unintelligible).
SHAPIRO: She reaches into tight jeans and pulls out a five and two ones. They're wrapped inside two glittering lottery tickets.
JONATHAN: You give me five. I'll keep the change.
Unidentified Woman: There. All right.
JONATHAN: Thank you. You want to smoke in my neighborhood, you got to pay me to smoke. I'm not selling drugs. I don't sell drugs. I just take the money. I take my profit. That's the hood.
Mr. NOEL: That example right there says everything. I don't want my daughter to be like this. I don't want my son to be like this. Now if the military's going to sell you dreams, we should live by the dreams. You know what I'm saying? Because my dreams are still--I'm still trying to make my dreams come true. I'm still trying to live the American life. I'm still trying to get away from stuff like that.
SHAPIRO: Herold Noel used to sleep alone on the streets of this neighborhood. Today, when he says goodbye to his cousin, he goes home to his family.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, how Herold Noel found help that got him off the street.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.