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Veteran crisis: Newest war vets become homeless at alarming rate

By Kelly McConkie Henriod

Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 25 2011 1:07 a.m. MST

Jordan Sanford, a homeless Iraq war veteran, lives at a transitional house in Eagle Mountain.__Jordan Sanford says he feels like a completely different person than he was before he got into transitional housing.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

EAGLE MOUNTAIN — The house that Jordan Sanford now calls home sits on a barren hilltop near Eagle Mountain, in a secluded, partially developed subdivision. Inside, there are tall ceilings and polished wood floors, and the natural light pours in from the windows. It's a big improvement from the tent Sanford called home two years ago while deployed in Iraq.

As comfortable as Sanford, 22, feels in his new home, it isn't his--he shares it with up to eight other war veterans. Otherwise known as the Ark of Eagle Mountain, it is a transitional facility for soldiers who have come home from war only to find themselves without a place to live.

In Utah, Sanford is one of 350 homeless veterans. Nationally, 110,000 former servicement and women don't have permanent housing. While most served in Vietnam, a growing population (an estimated 9,000 former soldiers) are from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This class of veterans faces a new set of problems unseen in previous wars. Due to roadside bombs, concussions and head trauma are more common than in previous wars, and often go unseen and unnoticed. Where veterans once came home with visible injuries such as missing limbs, many of today's soldiers, who often must endure multiple deployments, are coming home with invisible scars that can wreak severe psychological havoc.

As a result, many veterans like Sanford are finding themselves homeless faster than any of their predecessors, on average around 18 months after returning from war. "We are finding that veterans from this era are entering homelessness at younger ages than other eras, the average age being 33," said Al Hernandez, manager of the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program at the VA in Salt Lake City. "At our clinic, we are seeing less of a problem with substance abuse among homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but more post-traumatic stress disorder compared to other eras. We see that these veterans are dealing with more serious psychiatric problems."

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries are also more prevalent among Iraq and Afghanistan vets, leading to drug abuse, mental illness and suicide. Last week, the Army announced that Army National Guardsmen are killing themselves at higher rates than ever before, with over 300 active-duty and reserve soliders committing suicide in 2010.

And the problem isn't confined to men. Female veterans are becoming homeless faster than their male counterparts due to family breakups caused by the long absences required for soldiers on active-duty, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Women make up 21 percent of the homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

"America trains its servicemembers to be good soldiers, but they are not trained to know how to turn that switch off," said Maria Fruin, program manager of the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom Program at the George E Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake.

In her opinion, the biggest problem today's veterans face is that the transition between life as a soldier and life a civilian is more abrupt than it has been before.

"There is no decompression phase. These soldiers go from combat to couch surfing. It's like one day they've got a rifle in their hands, and the next day a remote control."

While Sanford was lucky enough to come home without any brain injuries, he suffers from PTSD and depression related to his service in Iraq. He says he struggled to adjust to a life without structure, because he thrived in the rigidity of soldier-life. While stationed in Iraq, Sanford was a guard at a prison called Camp Bucca, where he watched over Iraqi detainees day-in and day-out.

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