'When I Came Home': Fighting for Homeless Vets As many as 400,000 veterans of U.S. wars are homeless at least part of the time, including hundreds recently returned from Iraq. A documentary follows the plight of many of those vets, including one who appeals for help on Capitol Hill.
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'When I Came Home': Fighting for Homeless Vets

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'When I Came Home': Fighting for Homeless Vets

'When I Came Home': Fighting for Homeless Vets

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

On this Memorial Day, with this country at war, we're about to hear from a vet and a man who made a documentary film about him. Here's some background.

Even though soldiers in combat talk all the time about going home and getting out, some troops have a lot of trouble doing that. They have trouble adjusting to civilian life. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that hundreds of thousands of vets are among the nation's homeless, including some who served in Iraq.

And that brings us to this film. It's called When I Came Home. My colleague, Madeleine Brand, spoke with a homeless Iraq veteran in the film. He's Herrold Noel. And with the director, Dan Lohaus. We'll begin with him.

Mr. DAN LOHAUS (Director, When I Came Home): You know, I set out to make a film that would try to shine some light on this issue. And what I found in the course of making the film was that what happened to Vietnam vets is now happening, again, to troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They too are coming back to America and ending up homeless.


And Herrold, you were one of these homeless Iraq veterans. Tell us about your story. You served during the original invasion. You were part of the tip of the spear, as they call it.

Mr. HARROLD NOEL (Former Homeless Veteran): Mm-hmm.

BRAND: And tell us about that and what happened next when you came home.

Mr. NOEL: I was a filler for the Three-Seven Cav Support Platoon. And basically I was filling up the Apaches and the tanks, the Bradlees, on the frontlines while they were in battle. So it was tough. And it's scary driving a field truck, you know, in an ambush. After...

BRAND: So you were being shot at and...

Mr. NOEL: Yes, shot at. RPGs, grenades. We had to deal with it all. There was death everywhere.

BRAND: So basically, what happens? You serve your tour. You come home and the military says, well, thanks a lot and have a nice life?

Mr. NOEL: I can't blame the military because I still love the military. You understand? And I will go into the military at any time. I'll go back. There's just a big disconnect between the military and the V.A., and this whole system.

BRAND: How did you become homeless?

Mr. NOEL: Everything started crumbling, you know.

BRAND: What do you mean?

Mr. NOEL: The money was running out, so I called family members in New York. And they told us just to come back home, try to find a place up here. I was thinking, you know, I could go stay with family members. But I had a family with me. You know, I have wife and three kids. And I drove to New York and I just seen myself - because I was staying with my mother-in-law and I was sleeping on the couch. And there was not enough space for us. And I just seen myself on the streets. That's all I could see.

I went to the V.A. I went to Housing. I even tried to get welfare. I didn't even qualify to get welfare. It just broke my heart what my country had prepared for me. And it just made me upset when I see the rallies of people saying, you know, bring the soldiers home. But if you ask them to bring the soldiers home, what you going to do for the soldiers when they get home?

BRAND: I want to play a clip from the movie right now, where you break down. With everything that you've just said, it sort of weighing on you, and you're in your car. And let's play that clip.

(Soundbite of When I Came Home)

Mr. NOEL: (On film) I put applications in. I did all that. I have three kids out there, man. What the (bleep) I'm a man. And everybody is already looking down on me. I'm black and I'm a man, you know. But I fought for my country, man. My country shouldn't be doing this to me, man.

BRAND: What do you think when you see that clip, when you see yourself breaking down like that?

Mr. NOEL: I try not to look at it, because it makes me angry, because I know somebody else is going through it. I was walking around so angry. I was walking around with a gun on me. I didn't want nobody talking to me. I was pissed off at everybody. And the people I would tell my story to, they would tell me some horrible things, like you didn't fight for me. You fought for Bush, so I really don't care about your whole ordeal. And I would be surprised that something like that would come out of somebody's face. You understand?

BRAND: In the film, you talk about suffering from PTSD, posttraumatic stress disorder, when you first got back from Iraq. I'm wondering, are you still suffering from PTSD?

Mr. NOEL: When a soldier suffers from PTSD, that doesn't go away. I got mad because I had a reason to get mad, you know. I got arrested, you know, at the V.A. for getting upset. Because when you walk into a V.A., all you see is old Vietnam vets slouched over sleeping, dosed on like high medication. That's how they want me. And I'm not going to be like that. I'm going to just take all this anger I have inside and channel it into something positive. That's what my psychiatrist taught me.

BRAND: There is a scene in the movie, or several scenes in the movie, where you go to the media. And you make your case very forcefully, as you are making it now to me, to NPR, another media outlet. And a lot of people pick up your story. And let's hear some of that.

(Soundbite of When I Came Home)

Unidentified Woman: You have 26 new messages.

Ms. VERIA SHELTIC(ph): This is Veria Sheltick from CNN. And I am trying to get in contact with Herrold Noel.

Mr. BOB SCHIEFFER (CBS News): The war is taking its toll on Iraqis and Americans in many ways. Byron Pitts is working the side of the story that, frankly, I didn't know about.

Mr. BYRON PITTS (CBS News): According to the Department of...

BRAND: That's a scene from the documentary, When I Came Home, about veterans, specifically Iraqi veterans. Directed by Dan Lohaus.

And Dan, I'm wondering, that seems to be, when you're watching the movie, a turning point, that finally Herrold's story is getting some attention. And yet it doesn't turn out that way.

Mr. LOHAUS: Right. And that was the most shocking, disappointing thing was that after Herrold had done all this and kind of, as he said, embarrassed himself and put himself out there, and had to do it this way, no help really came.

Mr. NOEL: Nothing happened. Only two people called. One was just - just wanted to use me for a story. And the other one was the donor that helped pay my rent for a year. There was a part in the film, right, where I was looking at the paper when I first came out in the paper and I was giggling because where they put me in the paper. Who do I see in the front page? It was Brad and Jen's last kiss. And that just made me see that this is the respect that we get. We never get the front page. Nobody ever talk about it. But when Memorial Day comes around, everybody wants to celebrate. They're celebrating a holiday of soldiers that you'll see on the street panhandling.

BRAND: Have you gone to Washington and met with lawmakers and officials?

Mr. NOEL: Yes.

BRAND: And what have they said to you?

Mr. NOEL: They always talking about what they can do. But they not talking about the results. I want them to pass a law, at least. If they can't do a lot for a soldier, at least give them a foundation to work off of. At least give them a home. That's all a soldier needs. Just give me a place. Just give me a base to work from. And give a soldier the proper medical attention. Don't let them walk into the V.A. and the only thing you could offer them is medication. They need to fix the V.A. as, you know, from top to bottom.

BRAND: Herrold, what are you doing now? You now have a place to live. You are supporting yourself. What are you doing now?

Mr. NOEL: I'm thinking about running for Congress.

BRAND: Wow! Really?

Mr. NOEL: Yes, I am. I'm basically working with some people to do that.

BRAND: Well, good luck with that.

The film is called When I Came Home. It stars Herrold Noel. And it was directed by Dan Lohaus.

And thank you both very much for coming in and speaking to us about that.

Mr. LOHAUS: Thanks so much for having us.

Mr. NOEL: Thank you.

CHADWICK: That interview by my colleague, Madeleine Brand. And you can see clips from the documentary, When I Came Home, at our website npr.org.

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