Yesterday’s veterans on today’s wars

Photo Credit: Natalie Schreyer

Veterans Frank Lawrence, David Pauling, Keith M. Van Doren, Leroy G. Cougle, Linda Hardy and George L. Wellman gather in the living room of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington. 

By Natalie Schreyer

On 9/11, Linda Hardy, 67, sat down in her office and prayed. She had just watched colleagues in her department at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Millington, Tennessee, become “hysterical” with fear as New York’s Twin Towers crumbled to the ground.

They were stunned. The enemy that struck the World Trade Center was a faceless nemesis. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had been attacked on its own soil.

But they knew what they had to do.

“We were gonna have to put the rubber to the road,” she said. “We were gonna have to do what we had been trained to do all our lives.”

Not all veterans from Hardy’s era share the same certainty about today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They may have served at a similar time in U.S. history, but their viewpoints differ on U.S. strategies, successes and failures.

Necessary war or losing situation?

Hardy, a retired active duty reservist in the U.S. Navy since she was a 20-year-old college graduate,  said the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are “in some ways necessary.”

However, Marine Corps veteran David Pauling, 87, cited the religious differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as “a war you can’t win.”

Pauling, who moved to Washington to help elect Bernie Sanders to the presidency, said as long as there are dueling religious factions, “that’s a losing situation.”

After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Pauling volunteered with AmeriCorps and was sent to Alabama to help rebuild. He saw levels of poverty he could not imagine; people were living in “pure filth,” he said.

In the face of the devastation, his job as a contractor was to recover what he could save and rebuild the rest. Pauling said that while the so-called Greatest Generation rebuilt what its wars had destroyed, today, money is used for abuse instead of recovery.

 Frank Lawrence, an 86-year-old Air Force veteran, said the U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan lacks direction.

“If they had a program, it’d be fine, but they don’t have a program,” he said.

When asked what his strategy would be if he were the commander in chief, Lawrence was definitive. The first thing he would do, he said, is “look for another job.”

Lawrence said he doesn’t have enough education to make the decisions required of a commander in chief.

His 1949 deployment to England was a form of education, he said. At the time, the country was devastated from World War II bombing and strict food rationing was in place. Lawrence said he never lived with such shortages in the United States, even during the war. For a young man of 18, it was “one hell of an education, let me tell ya,” he said.

A different education

George Wellman, 71, of the U.S. Army, also referred to his military service as an education.

While he expressed regret that his first through 12th grade education was “lacking,” he said he has made up for it in his later years. As a boy in Alexander County, North Carolina, he attended the same local school for all 12 years, although the schools in neighboring Iredell County were better, he said. But at such a young age, he had no control over the choice.

“I think I got left behind,” he said.

Wellman was drafted in 1966. He went through basic training three times before becoming a military intelligence analyst. A soft-spoken yet unwavering man, he said he prefers to work quietly in the background.

He expressed hesitation when asked for his opinion on the two wars that have dogged the U.S. for more than a decade.

“An old soldier once told me, you make a decision by having a complete picture of the situation. I don’t have that,” Wellman said.

Navy veteran Leroy Cougle, who served for 20 years, said U.S. involvement in today’s wars should be all or nothing.

“My philosophy is if you’re going to get involved, get involved. If you’re not then get the hell out,”

-Navy veteran Leroy Cougle

“My philosophy is if you’re going to get involved, get involved. If you’re not then get the hell out,” he said.

Cougle, who referred to himself as a “snot-nosed 17-year-old kid” at the time he joined the Navy, said his service was the best thing that ever happened to him. It helped him mature, he said.

In the early days of his service, he mouthed off to a superior and got knocked to the ground. After that, he said he learned never to talk back.

If he were called to serve today, Cougle would willingly return.

However, he knows he would go back to a Navy that has changed forever. The tasks of his generation have now been automated. Commands are given at the push of a button.

“I don’t even understand the military now,” Cougle said.

Helping vets find homes

Basic needs, including shelter and clothes reach D.C.’s homeless veteran population through The Salvation Army Emergency Social Services team.

By Beverly Kwakye

From a distance, The Salvation Army Emergency Assistance office on the corner of Harvard Street in Washington, D.C., appears small with a nondescript façade. Inside, however, the organization is dedicated to being among one of the groups who help the entire D.C. community.

Program Manager & Homeless Outreach Coordinator Theresa McKillop and caseworker Paula Dyan worked with a homeless veteran, whose name won’t be used for privacy reasons, for about seven years. Through Dyan’s efforts, the social services team connected her with housing, as well as furniture, first month’s utility bills, clothing and other necessities.

The Salvation Army's Emergency Assistance and Homeless Outreach Programs, Program Manager Theresa McKillop, provides emergency financial assistance and crisis intervention to residents of the District at the Emergency Assistance office in Harvard Street D.C.

The Salvation Army’s Emergency Assistance and Homeless Outreach Programs, Program Manager Theresa McKillop, provides emergency financial assistance and crisis intervention to residents of the District at the Emergency Assistance office in Harvard Street D.C. Photo Credit: Beverly Kwakye

The woman struggled to adjust at first, McKillop said. Homeless individuals often struggle to accept their new life setting after living outside with no beds or basic housing utilities. Some even choose to sleep on the floor or by the door just for safety issues, McKillop said.

Eventually, the woman adjusted to her new living environment and landed a job through the assistance of Dyan. She continues to be employed and housed, McKillop said.

The organization’s staff say that the veteran is very thankful for her new life. She frequently comes back to the social services office to say hello and to thank the workers for their efforts, according to McKillop.

“I feel good about that,” McKillop said with a smile.

Last year, The Salvation Army provided 226,276 meals, rental assistance to 1,535 households as well as utility assistance to 3,467 families with both veteran and non-veterans. Veterans who were facing eviction due to late rent payments, or were homeless and found housing through the organization, received first month’s rent and security deposits, said McKillop.

“We help with a whole gamut of services but primarily with rental and utility assistance,” McKillop said.

Aside from helping veterans and residents with rent and utilities, the organization assists with common needs like food, clothing, burial assistance and birth certificates.

McKillop said the Salvation Army gears their services towards the needs of the community, adapting and changing as needed.

The Salvation Army’s main focus is on housing help, and because they’re serving more veterans, the organization wants additional funding to serve specifically vets, according to McKillop.

JaNese Simon, social services program coordinator for The Salvation Army, maintains the staff and makes sure that the team is giving the best quality service to the clients they serve.

“We can look at the amount of veterans we do serve and see if there is a greater need,” Simon said.

Band of sisters: Vietnam soldiers recall sacrifice and sexism

Photo Credit: Steff Thomas

Advocates for women veterans say men still receive most of the gratitude and assistance for military service, despite women’s roles since the Revolutionary War. Groups, such as Women Veterans Rock, aim to change that.

By Steff Thomas

From nurses to combat, the position of women in America has run parallel to their roles in the military, yet their contribution often goes under-recognized as the perception of service women continues to evolve.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ records show women make up only 10 percent of recorded veterans, which makes them easy to overlook during celebrations and in difficult times, said Rev. Helen Fleming.

Women soldiers and veterans have faced rape and other injustices, which Fleming became aware of while researching a speech on Veterans Day that she was giving at Trinity University in 2010. In response, she created the Women Veterans Resource Center at her church in Washington, the Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church.

Army sargeants Shaylnn Jennings and Lisa Coulter say they came to the rally to support and give thanks to the women who served before them.

Army sergeants Shaylnn Jennings and Lisa Coulter say they came to the rally to support and give thanks to the women who served before them. Photo Credit: Steff Thomas

“Sometimes the women feel they don’t have anybody in their corner and my job is to say that we are here,” Fleming said. “Sometimes that just means giving them a shoulder to cry on and my door is open.”

Her center became the Washington satellite site for the Pennsylvania-based Women Veterans Rock initiative, which is focused on removing barriers women face as they transition from military service back into civilian life.

President Barack Obama’s 2010 ‘Ending Homeless Veterans’ campaign inspired the Women Veterans Rock initiative, according to Director Deborah Harmon-Pugh. The White House partnered with the VA and made a goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015, but the effort remains ongoing.

“Studies have shown that when women leave the military, they often leave with a high degree of depression, hypertension and PTSD,” said Harmon-Pugh, president of the Healthy Caregiver Foundation.

Aiding the wounded, banding together

Donna Barbisch, a veteran who is involved with the Women Veterans Rock campaign, said people in the military are “doers.” She enlisted in the service in 1967 at only 20-years-old against her family’s wishes, because she knew the Army needed her, she said.

Barbisch was a nursing student in Pittsburgh when the U.S. Army began to recruit.

“I was already wondering where I was going to go from there, so I thought if soldiers were dying on the battlefield, they obviously needed medical care,” Barbisch said. “So that is why I went to Vietnam.”

She worked in an emergency hospital in Vietnam for a year, treating U.S. military, Vietnamese civilians and even POWs who didn’t speak English. Barbisch said the Vietnamese patients often believed the nurses were trying to hurt them.

In one situation, a man thought the nurses were torturing him because they would not allow him to have food or drinks after surgery. When no one was looking, she said he “chewed through his IV so that he could drink the fluid.”

When the area had incoming mortar fire, nurses had to remove the people from their metal cots and put them under the beds.

“I remember putting a patient on the floor and then remembering that the chest tube bottle that helped to maintain his pressure had to be lower than the patient, so I had to clamp the tube,” Barbisch said.

Nurses in her unit worked 12-hour days, mostly six or seven days per week, and despite “total exhaustion,” they got up the next day to do it again.

She said she appreciated the other nurses around her and became very close to them during her service. Of the over 7,000 women in Vietnam, most were nurses or administrative personnel, said Barbisch.

“It was like a little family and you couldn’t get through anything without being dependent on others to hold you up when you thought you were on your last leg,” Barbisch said.

Military advances, memories of bigotry linger

The military is a lot more “politically correct” today than it was back then, according to Barbisch.

“Despite the need for women in the military, the men still displayed a certain amount of bigotry,” she said.

The men would purposely walk across the street to avoid saluting a woman, according to Barbisch. The men did not care that the women were also in uniform, Barbisch said.

“I remember we would be marching to songs like ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls,’ and the guys would be cat-calling from the balcony,” Barbisch said. “It could be annoying, but it wasn’t perceived as offensive back then.”

Today, military women struggle with some of the same challenges that existed in the Vietnam War, such as leaving a family behind.

Tiffany Johnson-Pittman was a single parent during her two deployments in Iraq. Unlike in the past, the military now has a family care plan that tracks who is taking care of their children while they are away, she said.

“But just because I was a world away, doesn’t mean I stopped being a mother,” said Johnson-Pittman, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.

Johnson-Pittman called home and once had the chance to read her daughter a story on camera. The tape was sent to her daughter, and Johnson-Pittman said “it was really special,” as reading to her daughter before bed had been one of their rituals before she was deployed.

There are still gaps in services for both women and men veterans. With a coalition of advocacy organizations working together, Women Veterans Rock makes an effort to help these women veterans, and also military women on active duty and their families.

“Women veterans are an elusive group and unlike male veterans, they do not wear their service like a badge of honor,” Harmon-Pugh said. She said it is more difficult for these women to find aid because they are not easily distinguishable and do not often know where to ask for help.

LIVE: ‘Always Ready’

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Photo credit: Ashley Balcerzak

It wasn’t until 2000 that an American thanked Harry Miller for his service at a memorial service in Seattle.

“I was very impressed because up until that point, only Europeans had acknowledged it,” said Miller, who served in the Army during World War II and the Air Force during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He retired a senior master sergeant after 22 years of service.

Miller wore a cap at the World War II Memorial that said, “Battle of the Bulge,” an event where he served as a tanker.

Miller met Linda Smith last year at a memorial service in Europe. Linda’s deceased husband was a commander in the same battalion as Miller.

“We’ve been together ever since,” Smith said at the World War II Memorial. “People always tell us they could make a movie out of our story. Harry would be George Clooney. Don’t tell Clooney.”

Miller keeps a patch in his pocket that says “toujours prêt,” or “always ready” in French.

Reporting by Ashley Balcerzak

Military chaplains ‘serve two masters’

Serving at home and abroad, the faithful wrestle with religion, diversity and two worlds.

By D. Ashley Campbell

A prisoner in the hospital at Fort Leavenworth disciplinary barracks in Kansas, refused to talk to anyone, but he would sketch. Then-Army chaplain, Col. John Hoffmann, asked the prisoner to draw how he was feeling. What the prisoner drew still brings Hoffmann to tears.

Photo credit: D. Ashley Campbell John W. Hoffmann poses with a signed photograph from President George W. Bush in which Hoffmann is the flag bearer. Hoffmann served for 36 years in the military. Many of his friends from Vietnam got cancer from agent orange and passed away. He considers himself lucky even though he is disabled from his service, because he got Parkinson’s disease rather than cancer.

Photo credit: D. Ashley Campbell
John W. Hoffmann poses with a signed photograph from President George W. Bush in which Hoffmann is the flag bearer. Hoffmann served for 36 years in the military. Many of his friends from Vietnam got cancer from agent orange and passed away. He considers himself lucky even though he is disabled from his service, because he got Parkinson’s disease rather than cancer.

The prisoner drew himself as a naked, bald man chained at his hands and feet, sitting in a corner. One could understand the sense of confinement, humiliation and loss of self-worth depicted in the image, recalled Hoffmann, now 71.

“He was willing to talk to someone, because I took the time to understand,” Hoffmann said.

The life of a military chaplain is not without its tensions and challenges of faith, as chaplains counsel soldiers at home and abroad. This has not changed over the years.

As of 2015, more than 9,000 chaplains are registered as serving in the U.S. Army. Chaplains represent a growing variety of traditions, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism among others, according to Marcia McManus, director of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Museum.

Even ‘help the atheist’

Army chaplains serve with a battalion that ranges anywhere from 300 to 1,000 soldiers, according to Capt. Jason Unsworth, 40, of the U.S. Army. Not all of these soldiers share the same religion, creating a space for a potential misunderstanding among the troops.

It’s the chaplain’s job to negotiate, facilitate and be “an agent of trust” in that diverse setting so each soldier can freely perform their religion, said Unsworth and former U.S. Navy chaplain Capt. Lyman Smith.

When Unsworth cannot be a source of religious or spiritual guidance for a person, he must provide access to other resources, he explained. He even mentioned that it’s his job to “help the atheist be a good atheist.”

Smith, 63, who is the executive director for the Military Chaplains Association, shared an example of how he negotiated space for neo-pagans on board his ship to practice while also maintaining peace where religious ignorance could arise. He had to negotiate between the neo-pagans, who use fire in their rituals, and the ship’s fire marshall because open flame is forbidden on board.

“It was up to me to make sure they were undisturbed,” Smith said, explaining that on a ship where nothing is secret. “There are some people who don’t appreciate that kind of diversity.”

Sometimes this misunderstanding comes from a lack of exposure and understanding, when some members of the military come from rural areas where they’ve never met a Hindu or Baha’i, Smith said.

“It’s not that they have hatred in their heart,” Smith said. “They just need to understand what it means to serve in a diverse environment.”

Easing suffering

Unsworth said he experienced crises of faith during his deployment to Iraq in 2007. It was hard to be in a war zone and not question the existence of God, but he focused on those he served – his fellow soldiers, he said.

“I had soldiers who were grappling with the ethical dilemmas that combat provides,” Unsworth said.

Credit: Unknown; soldier stationed with Unsworth in Iraq in 2007 Capt. Jason Unsworth during his 2007 deployment to Iraq. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and will return to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to teach after he graduates.

Credit: Unknown; soldier stationed with Unsworth in Iraq in 2007
Capt. Jason Unsworth during his 2007 deployment to Iraq. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and will return to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to teach after he graduates.

The suffering of soldiers compelled Unsworth to enlist as a chaplain. Unsworth attended divinity school after 9/11 and felt a calling to serve those going abroad to fight, he said.

“It was more a sense of these young men and young women are going and suffering,” Unsworth said. “They need chaplains that are compassionate and can remind them of their common humanity.”

 One night an aircraft malfunctioned during landing, endangering the pilot and crew of the aircraft carrier on which Smith was stationed in the Persian Gulf.

He completed his nightly visits to different portions of the ship when he felt compelled to return to “air ops,” the equivalent of a tower at an airport managing take-offs, landings and flight paths. When he returned he learned the crew were in an emergency situation. Smith said he provided support and encouragement “by simply being there” and praying for them.

“It meant a lot to be a part of the team and to contribute in an intangible way,” Smith said.

Bearing two symbols

Unsworth said there is a tension in balancing two types of service – the military and the Church – especially when the primary motivation is to fulfill a religious calling of ministry.

“Military chaplains kind of serve two masters,” Unsworth said. “On my uniform I wear two symbols. I wear the symbol of my rank and I wear the cross.”

Being a part of the institution from the standpoint of a faith tradition allows for a different voice. Chaplains are officers within the military institution, but they also represent their religion since they must be endorsed by a religious organization.  

“We’re insiders to the institution that offer an outsider perspective,” Unsworth said.

Hoffmann’s outsider voice allowed him to advocate for those not meant to be in combat during Desert Storm. He assisted getting a seven-month pregnant woman back to the U.S. even though her commander demanded she stay with her unit.

It also allowed him to develop relationships with Kurdish families in Iraq while he worked as a liaison between NGOs and the U.S. military after Desert Storm.

“I identified very readily with them,” Hoffmann said, speaking of one Kurdish family in particular that owned a slushy stand and invited him for meals at their home.

“I think I received more than I gave,” he said. “I think they did more to bolster my faith than I did to bolster their faith.”

Special courts for vets offer treatment

Photo Illustration by Sarah Edwards 

Fairfax County becomes first Virginia locality to give some veterans alternatives to prison

By Sarah Edwards

Steven Daniel has a daunting to-do list for the winter months: clear outstanding bills, plan his next culinary career steps and complete the final phase of his court treatment plan.

But the hardest task to check off? Buy Christmas presents for his three granddaughters.

“If I mess around buying things for them, they’ll hate me the rest of their lives,” said Daniel.

This year marks Daniel’s first holiday with the girls. Neither of his two sons had children when Daniel disappeared from their lives 10 years ago. Lost to alcoholism, Daniel said he spent the last decade in and out of jobs, homeless shelters and courtrooms. Worst of all, he said, he cut off contact with his family.

Then, last year, Daniel was arrested and charged with petty larceny and possession of a controlled substance. At the same time, the district court in Fairfax County, Virginia, was preparing to launch a Veterans Treatment Docket, a special court for veterans involved in the criminal justice system. Daniel, a 57-year-old veteran who served three years in the U.S. Army and eight years in the National Guard, signed up to be a “guinea pig” in the program, he said.  

Involvement in the docket over the last 10 months has “changed a lot of things,” Daniel said, especially his relationships with family.

Daniel is back in their lives again.

Fairfax County joins national movement

Daniel is one of five veterans participating in the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket — the first in Virginia — that diverts veterans from the traditional legal system who struggle with substance abuse, mental illness or trauma.

Instead, those in the program work with a team—a public defender, commonwealth attorney, judge, parole officer and volunteer veteran mentor, among others—who help veterans address the root causes of their behavior with holistic treatment.

“We put together a team that would learn to work collaboratively rather than in the adversarial way that you normally see in the courthouse,” said Don Northcutt, mentor coordinator with the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket.

Nearly one in five veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan alone suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and the same percentage report experiencing a traumatic brain injury while on duty, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The administration also concluded that 50 percent of veterans who qualify for treatment seek help, and only half of those who receive treatment can access high-quality care.  

This often lands veterans behind bars, on probation or trapped in a cycle of re-offending that limits access to opportunities like employment, education and public benefits. But just how many veterans are involved in the criminal justice system is unknown. The most recent national survey was conducted by the Department of Justice more than a decade ago in 2004—one year after the United States deployed troops to Iraq.       

“It’s not that veterans need a break or that [this docket] is something special for them. It’s about recognizing that behavior is caused by traumatic events that happen during military service, and addressing treatment needs there,” said Northcutt, who served in the Air Force from 1967 to 1973.

Fairfax County’s first Veterans Treatment Docket hearing took place in February after then-District Court Judge Penney Azcarate, a Marine Corps veteran, heard of the program’s success in other local jurisdictions. The model is based on drug courts, which serve to help people who are arrested on drug charges with their addictions, rather than impose jail sentences. It was first applied to veterans’ cases in Buffalo, New York, in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell. While presiding over drug and mental health courts, Russell observed a number of veterans pass through his courtroom; one Vietnam veteran in particular refused to cooperate with Russell’s requests.

“The judge had a lot of trouble reaching him. He was non-responsive, low affect, kept his head down low,” said Chris Deutsch, director of communications for Justice for Vets, a nonprofit organization that leads training and advocacy for Veterans Treatment Courts.

As the story goes according to Deutsch, in a moment of exasperation, the judge asked a court staffer, also a Vietnam veteran, to try and talk to the client in the hallway, said Deutsch. One hour later, he returned to the courtroom and stood before the bench at parade rest, head raised.

The judge asked the veteran if he would accept their help, and he agreed, said Deutsch.

And so began Veterans Treatment Court.

“The camaraderie that exists among veterans can be therapeutic. Perhaps the courts weren’t doing enough to serve veterans and the very specific and unique issues they’re dealing with,” said Deutsch.

State and local governments cover the bulk of funding for the courts; federal grants and nonprofit fundraising fill the difference, said Deutsch. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice allocated $5 million to Veterans Treatment Courts—in 2016, stakeholders are hoping for an increase to $15 million in federal grants. These partnerships between federal and local governments and community-based organizations are evolving into a “one-stop shop” for veteran services and benefits, Deutsch said.

“[Veterans Treatment Courts] pull resources together so the vets who really need them most have access. That collaboration becomes very powerful,” said Deutsch.

Vets step up to serve each other

Without “any real national structure to do so,” more than 200 Veterans Treatment Courts have formed in local jurisdictions across the country, said Northcutt.

Every court is tailored to its own state laws and community needs, but all adhere to a central rule: veterans are only eligible if they have a treatable condition contributing to their destructive behavior—conditions like substance abuse and mental illness. Courts are generally limited to misdemeanor, drug and non-violent felony cases, though advocates in some areas are working to expand the scope of eligible charges.

What makes Veterans Treatment Courts unique among other courts is a mentorship component, in which court-involved veterans are paired with a volunteer veteran mentor for the duration of the program.

Mentor Oct 14 2015-2

Volunteer veteran mentors for the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket gather for a photo. The group is growing, with nearly 27 mentors now in the program. Photo Credit: Fairfax Veterans Mentors

“A mentor is someone who can be there to listen, to keep the finger on the pulse of the veteran,” said Northcutt. “[They’re] not therapists. Not social workers. But people who are there to support and encourage and listen.”

Daniel and his mentor, a Vietnam veteran, talk two or three times a week. Sometimes he takes Daniel out for lunch to “get an insight on what’s going on;” other times they talk shop about Daniel’s education or benefits applications.

“He’s not like the in-between person. He’s the person that if I need someone to talk to, he’s there for me,” said Daniel.

When his mentor learned that Daniel had to visit the South County Center, a county-run resource and social services building, to access a computer, he gave Daniel the spare one he had at home. He also helped Daniel with his resume.

“In a nutshell, that’s it. Veterans who are willing to support fellow veterans,” Northcutt said.


Part of Daniel’s court “homework” is to write in a journal about where he wants to go after the program ends.

And does he have plans.

Daniel served as a chef in the military, and he hopes to continue cooking—a passion since he was 15 years old. Daniel wants to open his own soul food restaurant in Alabama, his home state. Or maybe a food truck (or three)—the kind of trucks that serve breakfast and on-the-job snacks to construction workers.

If Daniel stays on track with his treatment plan, his case should wrap up this winter, or in the early part of next year. For the first time in a long time, Daniel said, his goals are within reach.

“Now that I’m doing the docket program, it’s showing me that I was wasting my life away. Not caring about anyone. Not caring about my family. I was just surviving,” he said.

Back in the family circle, Daniel is proud of his two sons’ success—both of whom work for the federal government. And he is pleased with Christmas gift choices he made in early November for his granddaughters, with his former wife’s assistance: two sets of outfits for each granddaughter, plus a few toys.

“Everybody is doing pretty good. Now it’s my turn,” he said.

Veteran homeless population decreases under Obama

The veteran homeless population is falling, but 50,000 — and potentially many more — still lack permanent housing


By Derek Hawkins

Homeless veterans made up more than 11 percent of the adult homeless population in the United States in 2014, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

At the beginning of each year, the agency measures the scope of U.S. homelessness by tallying the number of people living on the streets or in temporary housing on a single night in more than 3,000 cities and counties nationwide. In 2014, more than 578,000 people were living without permanent housing, and nearly 50,000 of them were veterans, according to HUD.
Advocacy organizations such as the National Coalition for the Homeless say the figure is likely much higher — potentially in the hundreds of thousands on any given night — but HUD’s surveys are the main metric for policymakers.
President Barack Obama and the Department of Veterans Affairs launched an ambitious program in 2010 to end homelessness among veterans through partnerships with state and local governments. Since the program’s inception, veteran homelessness has fallen by about 33 percent, while the total U.S. homeless population has fallen less than 10 percent, according to HUD data.

What’s a veteran cost?

Photo credit: Ashley Balcerzak

By Fenit Nirappil

Even as the population of veterans declines, Department of Veterans Affairs spending continues to rise. That’s according to detailed expenditure reports made available by the agency, drilling down to a state-by-state level over the past 15 years.

The Cabinet-level department’s spending mostly goes to pension payments and health care, but also job training and building facilities. Its data does not include spending on programs available to veterans through state and local governments as well as other federal agencies.

Future face of America’s veterans

Photo Credit: Naoko Branker

By Fenit Nirappil

The Department of Veterans Affairs last October projected serving a future group of veterans that would be much smaller, more diverse and with a wider range of battlefield experience. The demographic projections aid in planning for long-term health care services, though the projects are predictions based on current trends and cannot predict future wars and conflicts.

Highlights of the report’s findings are shown below.


Disabled Veterans: 6 reforms the VA must make

Veterans say the Department of Veterans Affairs should improve wait times, cultural sensitivity, leadership

By Ashley Balcerzak

In 2014, whistleblower Dr. Sam Foote exposed the wrongdoings happening at the Phoenix Veterans Administration facility, including falsifying records and offering long waiting periods that led to the death of more than 40 veterans who didn’t get their diagnosis or treatment on time.

What’s more, this scandal led to further investigations into VA facilities across the country, where inspectors cited many other programs as “troubled.”

Since this whirlwind of audits and examinations, President Barack Obama and advocates have noted the improvements the Department of Veterans Affairs made, such as shorter wait times and increased staff numbers, but all said there is still a long way to go.

The VA includes the largest health care system in the country. It is also the second largest federal agency in the U.S.

Difficulty navigating and organizing such a large bureaucracy is the root of many veterans’ problems with the department, according to a group of disabled veterans interviewed who use the VA for their benefits or health care.

The department’s website is a great source of information but difficult to navigate, said Gene Silvestri, the VA coordinator for American Military Partners Association, a nonprofit helping veterans and their partners. The 40,000-member organization, based in D.C., launched in 2009 as a campaign to advocate for same-sex partners of service members during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies.

“The sheer volume that exists within the website is overwhelming, especially for those dealing with anxiety or depression,” Silvestri said.  

The VA has its specialties and its shortfalls, said veteran Ross Meglathery, the director of Vets First, an organization that helps veterans obtain their benefits. Formed as a separate program under the United Spinal Association in 2009, Vets First consults more than 2,000 veterans a year and helps with individual claims for benefits from the VA.

“For instance, in certain specific medical issues, such as spinal cord issues or brain issues, the VA has a lot of experience and they’re really good at it,” Meglathery said.  

The VA has made efforts to publicly post wait time data and to improve the data tracking standards for accuracy, according to a blog post from Carolyn Clancy, the Veterans Health Administration interim undersecretary for health.

The VA did not respond a request to comment.

However, according to veterans and advisors helping veterans navigate the VA, many more improvements can be made.

Here’s what some disabled veterans and experts think the VA should focus on:

Wait times and backlogs

“At a personal level, in my own experience, I myself had difficulties with it … My own claim took about 38 months. When I reached the solution set, I said, ‘This is good enough.’ It wasn’t worth the time and the emotional stress,” said Drew Early, a veterans law attorney. The average wait time is supposed to be eight months for veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, Early said.


“The VBA doesn’t have enough doctors, nurses, technologists,” said Jim Strickland, the overseer of VA Watchdog, a resource hub for veterans navigating the VA. “They cannot possibly keep up with the demand that is placed on them and that’s the reason for all of the scandals and what have you. There just aren’t enough people.”

Antiquated guidelines and technology

“The rules and regulations that govern how we are rated for disabilities and how we are allowed to access both our health care and our benefits were made in the 40s and 50s and not much has changed,” Strickland said. “It is also a massively paper oriented system and they can’t break free from that.”


“It’s my opinion that former Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey was the best hope that the VBA [Veterans Benefits Administration] had to modernize the overall system. Now they have a temp in there again, for such a vitally important position,” Strickland said. “All the progress she made fighting tooth and nail, I expect to grind to a halt.”

Hickey, who held the highest benefits position in the VA, stepped down in October. Hickey spurred the effort to modernize the department and introduced automatic electronic systems, Strickland said.

Arbitrary time limits

The vocational rehabilitation and employment program, a VA service that offers job training to vets, requires that veterans seek the benefits before 12 years pass since they served, Meglathery said.

“You may not realize you have issues until years later. It may not hit you,” Meglathery said. Some variants of post-traumatic stress disorder take months or years before symptoms crop up, wrote Matthew Friedman with the National Center for PTSD.

Meglathery recommended Congress do away with these arbitrary time limits in a testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Cultural Acceptance

There has been a huge movement across the country to try to care for LGBT vets, Silvestri said. “The VA is trying to bridge that gap with therapeutic groups, mind and body workshops, therapy, with things popping up here and there, but it’s not consistent across the system.”

Doctors and workers are still uncomfortable asking questions about a veteran’s sexuality or gender identity, which can be crucial to determining their health care, Silvestri said.

“The LGBT has issues with the VA specific to their community, including being afraid a physician will laugh, snicker, roll their eyes, or aren’t informed,” Silvestri said. “The VA needs greater cultural acceptance.”


Veteran suffering uncovered: