It’s happened three times since Christmas. We have met three honorably-discharged Iraqi and/or Afghanistan war veterans that were homeless. They were all very young and had one thing in common. When they got out, they got into trouble. Really quick. One guy only made it two weeks in civilian clothes. It took only slightly longer for the other two.
I want to focus in on the first guy we met. He was amazing to me. He’s exactly what you would think a proud soldier should look like. He was a decorated U.S. Army Ranger. Tall and muscular, he is a handsome fellow. He’s the kind of guy you would want with you if you’re in a tight spot.
I asked him what happened. He said that he had trouble adjusting. He said the jump from the battlefield in Afghanistan to the backyard with his wife and kid in Georgia should have been easy. Yet he felt edgy, out of step; he said that he couldn’t communicate right. One night he decided to go to a bar and cool down a little. It was there that things got out of control.
“Somebody said something. I don’t really remember what happened,” said the former Ranger. “Next thing I know, I was really punching this guy,” and he just froze as he was telling me the story. He said that he thinks about the war all the time.
One of my friends on the police force who was U.S. Army Airborne came out and talked with him, too. He said that the guy was legit. He had been there and done it.
Two weeks as a civilian and then 18 months in jail. He couldn’t believe that it had happened to him. When he was released from jail he returned home, but only for a day or two, and then he took off. He tried to go home several more times after that to his very understanding wife but he just couldn’t do it. “Why?” I asked. He said, “I know she loves me. I’m ashamed, embarrassed, can’t believe I did so good over there, then all this. I have disappointed myself and my family. It’s like I am lost. Just don’t know what to do.”
He had only been in Santa Monica for a couple of days when I met him. He had spent about two months in Venice. He said he knew he was going to get into serious trouble there but wanted to check out Santa Monica before he left the West Coast. He had been bouncing around trying to find the answer for awhile now. No luck yet.
I told him that there was help available for him. I asked him if he would like for me to take him to the Veterans Administration center and introduce him to some of the good folks that I know there. He said he wanted to wait until he gets home to get locked into the V.A.
I asked him if he wanted to call and talk to someone back home. “Can I do that?” he answered, sort of surprised. The only number he would let me dial for him was to a family friend. The whole conversation evolved around questions about his wife and child. “If you see them, tell ‘em that I love them,” was how he ended the conversation. The door was still open for him to go home.
When we saw him the next day he said that he wanted to start making his way east. His friend had offered him a place to stay. “Will you be close to your wife?” I asked. “In the same town,” he replied. “It will be the closest that I have been to home in over a year.”
We had a long conversation the day before he left. He said that he felt much better because he had bottled up a lot of stuff. I challenged him to keep talking about it, to get it out, say it, to hear what he is thinking, it will help him clear things up. He promised me that he would find a counselor in Georgia. He was ready to deal with it.
The transition from the battlefield doesn’t mean that you are going to be OK just because you arrived home in one piece. The wounds are often hidden from sight. They’re on the inside. There is a battle that still rages in the mind. The Ranger said, “Once you have been in hand-to-hand combat you are never the same.” It is one thing to fire on somebody from the distance. But when you have looked in a man’s eyes, experienced the struggle of a man fighting for his life, he said, “It’s hard to make the images go away.”
We are keeping tabs on him. He made it back to his family friend’s house in Georgia. Soon we hope to hear the words, “I’m home!” We wish you well, soldier.
Ron Hooks is the founder and executive director of West Coast Care, a nonprofit. WCC is part of the Santa Monica Police Department’s Joint Homeless Outreach Program. Since October 2006, more than 1,000 homeless have been compassionately helped to transition off of the streets of Santa Monica by reconnecting them with their families, placing them into housing and/or treatment programs. Learn more at westcoastcare.org.