Thousands of the veterans we honored across the nation on Veterans Day are homeless, unemployed and, in many cases, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and other mental problems.
One in four of the estimated 744,313 homeless people on the street on any given night is a veteran, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. That means nearly 200,000 veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are homeless.
Researchers who have been tracking this phenomenon for decades say that it took nearly 10 years after the Vietnam War ended for the lives of veterans of that conflict to begin to unravel and for them to start showing up in large numbers in homeless shelters. By contrast, hundreds of veterans of current wars already have been identified as homeless.
More than 900 South Carolina veterans who are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs in recent months. Some are as young as 23 years old.
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Advocates for the homeless worry this is a sign that the numbers of homeless veterans could increase substantially in the near future. They say intense, repeated deployments have left newer veterans particularly vulnerable.
Services for homeless veterans have improved in the past 20 years. But caregivers complain that more money and more trained personnel are needed to handle the influx of troubled veterans.
This plea for adequate funding for veteran health care comes at the same time that officials at Rock Hill's Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic cut the length of therapy sessions from 45 minutes to 25 minutes, apparently because the clinic lacked the personnel to provide the longer sessions.
The report on homeless veterans coincides with reports of what amounts to a suicide epidemic among veterans. More than 58,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their own lives -- more than were lost in the entire Vietnam War -- and the Veterans Health Administration estimates 1,000 suicides per year occur among veterans receiving care with the VHA and as many as 5,000 per year among all living veterans.
Americans commonly are urged to "support our troops." But that support can't end when the troops leave the battlefield.
The nation has sent young men and women into combat, often inadequately equipped. It has required them to serve multiple tours with little time for recuperation before they are shipped back.
And now, as these figures indicate, the burden is taking its toll. Thousands of veterans will suffer for decades to come from traumas resulting from service in these conflicts.
When we say, "Support our troops," it must be a commitment to support them until they can return to society as functioning individuals or, if necessary, for the rest of their lives. Otherwise, the phrase rings hollow.
Survey indicates a quarter of America's homeless on any given night are veterans.
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