Putting a Human Face on Veterans in Need and at Risk

Many people seem to think that some veterans have chosen to live on the streets or to become criminals.

Incarcerated veterans

By Matt Davison – VietNow National Veterans Incarcerated Chair

Our program in California, Tecumseh, and various other correctional institutions nationwide, continues to grow and fulfill its objectives in the successful transitioning of veterans incarcerated from prison to society. We have entered our third year serving four institutions in three California counties, traveling over 1,400 miles a month.

In the years that I’ve been involved with homeless and incarcerated veterans, I have come across a disturbing intolerance of veterans who had the good fortune to come home intact, against those who did not.

But this report is not a typical report in the standard sense. It is more of a commentary that needs to be brought out because veterans themselves are most often the least likely to help these veterans in need.

In the years that I’ve been involved with homeless and incarcerated veterans, I have come across a disturbing intolerance of veterans who had the good fortune to come home intact, against those who did not.

By the end of the Vietnam War, the percentage of veterans we were shipping off to prison for violent crimes was higher than the percentage of civilians going to prison for those same offenses.

Many veterans seem to think that it is the preference of homeless veterans to live on the streets or to become criminals. We don’t like to take into consideration the possibility of an out-of-control PTSD episode or self-medicated substance abuse to dull the memory of combat. After all, you got through it – why can’t they?

By the end of the Vietnam War, the percentage of veterans we were shipping off to prison for violent crimes was higher than the percentage of civilians going to prison for those same offenses. We gave the veterans longer sentences than their civilian counterparts as well. Why was that? Was there a failure in readjustment?

The psychological costs borne by the Vietnam veteran was horribly high and painfully deep.

We exchanged the slow boat home from combat for individual flights that took a man from combat to civilization in days or hours. We dropped the education program that put troops onto campuses and into contact with older and wiser faculty members for a few years. And we all know of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War that robbed combatants of the hero’s welcome so important to the veterans in the history of warfare. The psychological costs borne by the Vietnam veteran was horribly high and painfully deep.

Other risks faced by veterans included: Training and experience in the violent resolution of problems; never being de-programmed; the effects of PTSD, Gulf War Syndrome, and Agent Orange; and exposure early on to alcohol and drugs in the service, resulting in addiction and incarceration.

The point is, before you disrespect a man, take a look at his combat record and consider the fact that maybe he had your back 35 years ago in Vietnam.

In my time working with veterans in need and at risk, I have encountered recipients of the Bronze Star for bravery in battle, a Silver Star recipient, and two World War II veterans who took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima. Why these elder warriors are still incarcerated is beyond my understanding, since their offenses were not of a violent nature.

The point is, before you disrespect a man, take a look at his combat record and consider the fact that maybe he had your back thirty-five years ago in Vietnam. The majority of those veterans I work with have substance abuse or PTSD issues. This is not their choice. Some drugs such as tranquilizers and phenothiazines were administered on the combat front to suppress psychological trauma. These coping mechanisms were often traded for drug use and alcohol abuse after returning from combat.

Fortunately, change is beginning to enter the prison system and reach out to our homeless brothers. New transitional housing is being built here in Los Angeles, and the Department of Labor/Department of Veterans Affairs has funded the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program that prepares veterans for successful transitions back into society upon their release. Some state prisons around the nation have their own veteran programs, and veteran service organizations such as VietNow have incorporated chapters inside state correctional facilities. We owe it to these men to rehabilitate them and help them in their reintegration back into society.

We should judge each veteran on his own merit, and not on stereotypes, prejudice, or stigma.

We must make sure they have a second chance to establish themselves with the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. We should judge each veteran on his own merit, and not on stereotypes, prejudice, or stigma. These veterans must be encouraged to become valuable assets to the community by supporting themselves, their families, paying their taxes, and contributing to the public good.

Several states have already passed legislation to assist qualified veterans in gaining employment without prejudice because of arrest or conviction records unrelated to their ability to perform jobs they are seeking.

The next time you walk past a veteran in need or at risk, don’t turn away. Look him in the eye and be thankful for your own good fortune. And when someone tells you that helping these men will result in tax increases, tell him that the successful rehabilitation of incarcerated veterans is dramatically less than the reincarceration of that veteran. It not only makes sense to give hope to a veteran in need of hope, it saves tax dollars at the same time. Most of all, respect your brothers and welcome them home. It will do you as much good as it will do him.

 

blurbmattA former Air Force Top Secret Intercept Radio Operator, Matt Davison was stationed in Misawa, Japan, as the Vietnam war was heating up. He has spent the last 13 years as a veterans advocate – serving homeless, addicted, dual-diagnosed, and veterans incarcerated. Matt is an accredited Veteran Service Officer, and continues his work, serving our most disadvantaged veterans.