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In our opinion: Helping homeless vets

Published: Monday, Nov. 12 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Sept. 19, 2012 picture, homeless veteran Jerome Belton poses for a portrait at a homeless shelter in San Diego. A former Marine, Belton now lives on the streets in San Diego.

Gregory Bull, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Ground has been broken for a new residential center in Utah for homeless military veterans, signifying another step in a national attitude adjustment toward those struggling to adapt to civilian life.

The Valor House will offer transitional housing to assist a significant number of veterans in the process of merging into the mainstream. The facility, on the Veterans Administration campus near the University of Utah, will include 72 bedrooms and a number of communal kitchens open to veterans who have found themselves homeless after their release from service.

It is nearly certain the $4.5 million facility will have a low vacancy rate into the foreseeable future. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that on any given night, more than 200,000 former service men and women are without permanent shelter. It is estimated that between 20 and 25 percent of all homeless people are military veterans.

Various public and private initiatives are working to reduce that number, the result of a slow awakening to a problem that for too long was shunned as a national priority.

It is telling that nearly half of the nation's homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. They returned to a country that disdained the war and was eager to seize its conclusion and put it out of mind. Those who fought were not welcomed as returning heroes but were viewed as reminders of a political misadventure.

Many suffered psychological damage brought by exposure to the most horrible consequences of modern warfare. At the time, there was reluctance among the military establishment to formally recognize their condition. Post-traumatic stress disorder was still a controversial diagnosis, and few if any veterans saddled with heavy emotional baggage were able to find adequate treatment.

Instead, many withdrew, self-medicated and found themselves on the periphery of society, living on the streets, often in small camps with other veterans. The rate of suicide among them was inordinately high. Their circumstance was truly a national disgrace.

Today, 50 years after the war started, attitudes are changing and events are being held to honor those who fought in Vietnam, but that won't erase the damage. Projects like the Valor House represent a reversal of course that can atone in some measure for earlier dishonor. It represents an opportunity for those returning from today's war zones to navigate away from the precipice of despair and disenfranchisement that so many of their predecessors crossed.

Those who are availed of the services of the Valor House will be placed in a stage of transition into normalcy. For the nation as a whole, it is the kind of investment that marks a transition toward an attitude of greater compassion, and a recognition of our duty to those whose duty to our country have left them in need of a helping hand.

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