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From heroes to homeless vets (Part I)

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Editor’s note: Since 2001, more than 1.7 million U.S. troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a Rand Corporation study, some 20 percent (more than 300,000) of these veterans are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or major depression, which often lead to substance abuse, homelessness and even suicide. Los Angeles is not only the homeless capital of the U.S, but also the homeless veteran capital. This article is the first part of a series on America’s growing post-military service crisis.“You know what? It was pretty intense. Never seen nothing like it before. I’d never seen so many vehicles, so many personnel in one place at the same time. Crossing the border from Kuwait to Iraq was something else, I’ll tell you that. It’s something I really don’t like talking about, but I can tell you that much. Pretty much anybody there at the time saw some sort of action, you know, anything from like pot shots from the enemy to air support. “It was just too much.”And the 30-year-old hefty man with the shaved bald head and boyish face and voice pauses. His expression hardens a bit, while his eyes seem far away, maybe remembering. “War really takes a toll on people. You know, not only physically but mentally. I went over weighing 200 pounds; I came back weighing 150 pounds. A couple months after I got back, I discharged from the Marine Corps because I had a lot of leave time accumulated. My four years was up already.”In 1999, Sergio Arias enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps a couple months after graduating from Channel Islands High School in Oxnard. He was 18. In March 2003, as a member of the First Marine Expeditionary Force of Camp Pendleton, he found himself part of the massive invasion of the Second Gulf War by mostly U.S. forces under commander-in-chief George W. Bush and U.S. Army General Tommy Frank. The president’s stated goal to Congress was to find and destroy weapons of mass destruction. But Arias didn’t have anything to do with that; his unit was responsible for logistics, moving cargo, explosives and personnel from airstrip to airstrip. Right now he’s sitting near the center of a long conference table in Building 116 of the sprawling 387-acre Veterans Administration complex off Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles. The historic two-story, sandy brick structure is the headquarters of New Directions, Inc., a nonprofit substance abuse and mental health treatment program providing veterans with food, shelter, support and rehabilitation. As a “Trauma-Informed” service provider, it offers treatment for vets suffering from combat injury, survivor’s guilt, physical or sexual abuse, homelessness and other trauma-inducing experiences. For 27 months Arias was in New Directions’ “Operation Welcome Home” program for men and women who served in either Iraq (“Operation Iraqi Freedom”) or Afghanistan (“Operation Enduring Freedom”). He discovered the problem that was eating him up was one of the signature injuries suffered in these two 21st-century conflicts — PTSD or “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” “I discharged, and it was kind of weird back at home,” Arias continues in a reflective tone. “Because you go from a war-time scenario to coming back and your life just slowing down instantly to civilian life. I had a hard time adjusting. Not only that, I started noticing that I was having a lot of nightmares. And I started having a lot of symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which at the time I didn’t know about. I didn’t like being in big crowds. I was a little hyper-vigilant. Stuff like that. “So I started self-medicating myself with methamphetamines within six months. But during that time, I had already been heavily drinking the whole time. The drug use lasted for about three years, and I was pretty much couch surfing, living from place to place, until I started getting in trouble with the law, you know. Got arrested several times and eventually had to do some time in jail for drug-related crimes. And I had a firearm on me, too, but it was for safety. A pistol.”He ended up in Ventura County Jail on a host of charges. Although he says he was never actually convicted of any, it took his public defender and a sentencing coordinator eight months to come up with an appropriate deal. The troubled young vet was asked if he wanted to do six months in a special program for veterans with the time he’d already spent in jail plus three years’ probation, or go to state prison for nine years.And that’s how Sergio Arias got to New Directions.At-risk veteransAccording to Ed Gonzalez, program supervisor of Operation Welcome Home, and John Hill, New Directions’ detox coordinator, Sergio Arias is typical of more than 300,000 men and women vets who have served in these two wars and suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and major depression. PTSD makes them more at risk for substance abuse, family and relational difficulties, job or financial problems, and many mental health issues. And if they don’t get help, their personal problems often escalate into multiple addictions, homelessness and even death. A report released this summer by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found that while homelessness in Greater Los Angeles declined over the last two years, for vets it has shot up 24 percent since 2009. Los Angeles County has more than 8,100 veterans without a home, and nearly a third of them are chronically homeless. The suicide rate among returning vets is four times higher than for the general public.“Here’s the problem,” Gonzalez explains. “You get out and you go home, and you’re not the same person. Everybody expects you to be the same little boy, but you’re not. So now you’re in conflict with your parents, and your parents say, ‘You know what? You’ve got to go.’ “So now you’re couch surfing and you’re ticking everybody off along the way and spending all the money you’ve saved up in the service. And now you start medicating with drugs and alcohol because you’re not getting help with your PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury or other mental health disorders.“So before you know it,” he continues, snapping his fingers, “within six months to two years, which is starting to look like the average, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are becoming homeless. It’s that quick. After Vietnam, the average was anywhere from six to eight years. But we’ve had these new vets come to New Directions three months after they were discharged.”Hill is shaking his head. “It’s a different war,” he says. “It’s not like Vietnam, the one I went through. It’s fought out in the open. The weapons of destruction are a lot meaner than when I was in in the ’60s. And a lot of guys over there now are surviving that which would have killed us. I think they’re seeing a lot more destruction to their comrades if they didn’t get it themselves.“So when they’re back, they don’t know what to do with all these feelings and emotions. Some people call it PTSD. Whatever it is, they don’t know what to do with it. They’re not relating to the people they’re coming back to. And they don’t really have anybody to talk to who they feel understands them.”Hill and Gonzalez agree there’s no distinguishing between the front line and back line, where you were safe and could relax at least for a little while, like in previous wars. In Afghanistan and Iraq, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), rocket-propelled grenades and mortars mean there are no safe jobs or places. Even Baghdad’s heavily-guarded Green Zone military compound has taken casualties. The result: Soldiers are stressed out 24 hours a day during their entire tour of duty.The two hands-on social service providers say there are other factors as to why so many of today’s ex-warriors are experiencing severe mental health and substance abuse complications.There is hardly no transition time between being in a war zone and arriving back stateside. Multiple deployments of four or five tours are not uncommon. And military training and occupations aren’t easily transferable to civilian jobs. In addition, many Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are being discharged with so-called preexisting borderline personality disorders that automatically disqualify them from receiving any GI Bill benefits, including psychological or medical aftercare. And sometimes there’s even a real disconnect between the Veterans Administration and the men and women it’s supposed to serve. Arias, for example, didn’t even know that the VA existed to help hurting vets like himself.When the current recession and shortage of affordable housing are added to this list, the end result often means falling into homelessness for today’s veterans — and much sooner than their counterparts from previous conflicts.Gonzalez, who belongs with his family to St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church in Los Angeles, sees the current vet crisis as a moral issue, plain and simple. “I think the VA is doing the best job they possibly can with the resources they have and the overwhelming number of veterans and their new ailments,” he says. “But what I do know is there’s a lot of veterans out there who need help.“So it kind of bothers me that in a nation as wealthy as what we are and as powerful in terms of military as we are, that we don’t take care of our service members the way they should be taken care of. And that’s what I’ve learned working at New Directions — as a nation we haven’t taken care of those who give us what we’re able to have. Absolutely, when these new vets come home, they’re largely forgotten.”Long recoveryAfter more than two years in New Directions’ Operation Welcome Home program — first living on-site and later in Chris’s Place, transitional housing in the Del Rey neighborhood of Los Angeles — Sergio Arias now has his own apartment through a Section 8 voucher. He’s been clean since he entered the program. For a while he had a job, but found it too intense and quit. And he still sees a psychiatrist at the VA’s PTSD clinic and receives Social Security disability. “Pretty much what this place helped me do was I changed my way of life,” he says matter-of-factly. “Being here, I learned a lot about myself. I was self-medicating myself for post-traumatic stress, not wanting to think about these issues I had, you know. So that’s why I would use meth. I didn’t want to go to sleep. Meth makes you feel invincible. And that’s what I was running away from, wanting to deal with these things.“I thought I was the only one who had these problems,” confides the former leatherneck. “Before, I started feeling like I had a weakness myself, you know, for having these problems. And then in the groups I started meeting all these other tough men that said, ‘Hey, I have these problems, too. It’s OK.’ So I felt I had found a group that was like me.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0826/vetsl2/{/gallery}

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