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

"Have you seen the movie Groundhog Day?" he said. "I woke up and did the same thing over and over every day." Though he never saw direct combat, from time-to-time rocket bombs called mortars would hit the base and explode. He said it was difficult to live with the realization that a mortar could strike near him at any second and end his life. He was also disturbed by the inhumane treatment that the detainees received at the hands of the military, but didn't realize how affected he was until he got home.

"At first when someone would ask me about my deployment, I would ice over it. But it turns out there were some things that weighed heavily on me. I felt like I was asked to take away people's humanity."

When Sanford got home from Iraq in 2008, he got a job as a data processor, but quit after a month because it bored him. After blowing his savings on a car, rent, and a girlfriend he was broke. Sanford then moved in with his mom and brother, but by that point he was depressed. He started smoking pot and drinking. He felt like he had become a burden to his mother and moved out.

"At that point I was angry at myself," said Sanford. "I had been doing so good. I graduated from high school, joined the army, and felt like I was doing something with my life. When I realized I had no place to go I was startled. I'm embarrassed to say that I felt I either had to end my life or change my life. So I decided to change my life by seeking help from the VA."

A few weeks after Sanford got home, he was diagnosed with PTSD by a therapist from the VA. After that appointment, Jordan did not seek any type of assistance from the VA until he found himself homeless.

"Asking for help was the last thing on my mind because I was embarrassed that I couldn't keep my life together by myself.".

Sanford's reluctance to seek help from the VA is illustrative of a growing problem among veterans with depression and PTSD. The VA recognizes that many soldiers feel there is a stigma to receiving therapy or treatment, which is why the VA is working to reduce that stigma, and let soldiers know it's OK to ask for help.

Through the VA, Sanford found housing at the Ark of Eagle Mountain, which is specifically designaged for veterans struggling with substance abuse, depression and anxiety. About 40 percent of the veterans who have lived at the facility served in Iraq or Afghanistan, says Paula Bruce, a substance abuse counselor and the program director of the Ark of Eagle Mountain. Bruce and her co-counselors help the soldiers overcome addictions and manage depression and anxiety, as well as help them find permanent housing and employment. Bruce says she knows there are more veterans like Sanford who the VA never sees because they won't reach out for help.

Sanford empathizes with the men and women he served with who might be in a similar situation.

"Everyone is so strong and confident when they get deployed," he said. "It makes me sad to see how many get so affected by their deployment, and how so many people just get worn down when they get home."

Paul Riekhoff, Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans in America, finds the situation of homeless Iraq/Afghanistan veterans to be very discouraging. "I think even if there's one homeless veteran, it should be a national outrage. I mean, a day when it's twenty degrees outside and the idea that some man or woman who got home from Iraq or Afghanistan maybe just a couple of months ago are homeless, that should outrage everybody in America."

Sanford said that going to the VA was the best thing he could have done. "I went in on a Thursday and was here in Eagle Mountain by Tuesday. I have never been frustrated or upset by the service I received at the VA."

Sanford has already been there for two months, but says he feels like a completely different person than he was before he got there.

"I'm not depressed every day." Sanford said, "I'm starting to believe in things again and have a little faith. I feel like there's hope for the future."

e-mail: khenriod@desnews.com

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