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Coming home: US soldiers struggle in civilian life
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Conservative estimates show that 2,000 US veterans from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan are homeless

LOS ANGELES: In 2003, Jon was leading a unit of 20 US soldiers in Afghanistan in the "war on terror". Today he is heavily in debt, unemployed and homeless in Los Angeles.

As millions prepare to pay tribute to US veterans for Memorial Day on May 26, the case of this 44-year-old former platoon sergeant, and growing numbers of others like him, highlights the enduring problems faced by soldiers as they attempt to adjust to civilian life.

It is not a new phenomenon: tens of thousands of soldiers returning from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam during the 1960s and 70s found it equally hard to rebuild their lives. Today Vietnam veterans continue to make up the bulk of the estimated 150,000 soldiers who are homeless.

Yet there are striking differences between the returning soldiers from Vietnam and today's modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Anthony Belcher, a Vietnam veteran, notes that soldiers from his war returned to face widespread opprobium from a public that were disgusted by US involvement in the conflict. "Soldiers from my generation were ostracized," Belcher said. By contrast, US veterans of the post-9/11 campaigns are routinely hailed as heroes, regardless of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq.

Yet the age-old problems remain. And for many, their ultimate destination upon return to the US is a familiar one: the street.

Jon, who enlisted with the National Guard in order to help pay for his education, never once had to fire his weapon in Afghanistan. Yet the stress of being responsible for the men under his command weighed heavily.

"I was stressed by the fact that something could have happened. I had to worry about the lives of the 20 people I was in charge of," he says.

After returning to his home in California, Jon says he lived in a state of euphoria for several months before slipping into a depression which eventually led to him drinking heavily.

Before long he was struggling to make repayments on his car loan, had been evicted from his lodgings and was unable to find a job.

For three years he drifted before being taken in by New Directions, a Los Angeles-based organization which aims to help homeless military veterans reintegrate into society through substance abuse treatment, job training, money management classes and counseling.

"The vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are young -- 22 or 23 years old -- and have come back from very horrifying experiences because of what they have seen and what they have done," says Rachel Feldstein, associate director of New Directions.

Many soldiers return with a sense of their own invincibility, which in turn leads to risky behavior such as use of hard drugs, Feldstein says.

Others are struggling to cope with psychological problems. A recent study by the Rand Corporation found that one in five soldiers who have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dan, who like Jon asked to be identified only by his first name, was left mentally scarred after spending a one-year tour of duty in Iraq as a medic.

"I have seen the worst a war could offer," Dan says. Five months after he returned home, the nightmares began.

"I started to have flashbacks. Everyone upset me. At night I would drink a lot so I could pass out, because I couldn't sleep as I was having nightmares."

Arrested on multiple occasions for drink-driving, Dan was eventually jailed for 18 months before following a detoxification program.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs recently estimated that nearly 2,000 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are homeless, a figure that is far below the real number, according to Feldstein, who says fresh cases are arriving at New Directions every day.

Source >  Middle East Online (May 24)

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