Coming Home: Iraq Vets Confront Alienation & Homelessness

by Ross Caputi

Recently a friend from my former platoon e-mailed an article to me about the recent rise in homeless veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In the subject column, he appropriately wrote “the glory of it all.”

The article stated that 23% of the homeless population in the United States are veterans, 89% of whom received honorable discharges, and 33% of whom were stationed in war zones. Of all homeless vets 76% experience drug, alcohol, or mental problems.

The overwhelming majority of homeless veterans are from the Vietnam era. But there has been a recent surge of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan showing up in homeless shelters across the country, proof of the possibility of a whole new generation of homeless veterans across the country.

It seems strange that a country like America could let its service members slip so easily through the cracks, and it’s hard to imagine that the ragged looking creatures that most of us pass by everyday without throwing a nickel to once wore a uniform. But when I think about how recruiters go to high schools and job fairs to target people with no options, it’s amazing to me that only 23% of the homeless population are veterans.

It’s the poor people, the have-nots of America, who enlist and get sent to foreign countries to fight wars and promote democracy under false pretenses – disguised with words like duty, sacrifice, and patriotism. We are the burden bearers of this society. This nation’s dirty work is done by our hands and it sits on our conscience.

We’re asked to do things that are not humanly possible, to be animals one day and civil the next. If we fail, we face the brig or losing our benefits, both of which are crippling to young men and women. Those of us lucky enough to make it out in one piece are left with only our sense of pride and self-reliance, and miles of red tape between us and our benefits.

In 1st Battalion 8th Marines Alpha Company, my old unit, we used to joke about ending up homeless. We had come out of the second battle of Fallujah with comparatively low casualties, and when we returned to the United States whatever conflicted or confused feelings we had about the war were overshadowed by the fact that we had survived. For a while we felt invincible. We celebrated with family and friends for weeks and drank ourselves stupid until the nostalgia of being home wore off and we just drank for the sake of drinking.

The majority of us still weren’t even 21 years old, but before we realized it, we were bent on a path of self-destruction. We drank and reminisced about Fallujah so much that almost every conversation ended up as war stories.

Iraq consumed our thoughts, and our celebratory drinking soon turned into depressed and introverted drunkenness. Some of us felt patriotic about what we had done in Iraq, others didn’t, but nobody could argue with the fact that it changed us. We struggled with the day-to-day stresses of military life and often lost our tempers for no reason.

The rules and regulations of the Marine Corps drove us crazy and we yearned for freedom, but at the same time feared the day when we would no longer have a room in the barracks and a guaranteed paycheck on the 1st and the 15th of every month.

Most of us had no education and no skills that were relevant in the corporate world, and we almost all had new demons to deal with.

After enough time had passed we settled with the fact that we were indeed war veterans, some even feeling that they no longer belonged in society. Many Marines volunteered to go back to Iraq as soon as possible. Things began to snowball, and within a year 21 of us were discharged for drug use and one Marine drank himself to death.

The 1st Battalion 8th Marines is currently in Iraq again, and for many of the Marines in that unit it’s their second time. For those of us who got out, honorably or not, it’s been three years since Fallujah. Almost all of us drink too much, myself included, and some have drug problems. To my knowledge, none of us are living on the streets yet, but we’re all back to where we started before we joined – working construction and hauling trash, attending state colleges and dropping out.

We’re the poor and the have-nots of America, the only people desperate enough to sign their life over for a room in the barracks and the GI Bill. Ahhh, the glory of it all.

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