What It Means to be a Veteran

marines-3695500_1280Being a military veteran means you sacrificed a number of years of your life for the privilege of obeying orders from those of higher rank than you. It meant performing seemingly endless numbers of push-ups and sit-ups or hiking countless miles while wearing a too heavy rucksack. It meant drills (and/or grass drills); shooting ranges, GI parties (party favors for those were sponges, brooms and mops), and of course field trips (more times than not, in the rain or cold). It meant mind-numbing hours on guard duty or kitchen patrol. If you had managed to earn yourself extra duty; by breaking one or more of the numerous regulations, then you had up to 22 hours a day of the same mind numbing work, followed by a ‘generous’ 2 hours of sleep. Then you did it all again the next day.

Being a U.S. military veteran also means you were willing to fight and die in service to this country. It meant being separated from friends, family and loved ones. It meant giving up control of your life to others and having to trust your well-being to them. It meant risking life and limb and potential (permanent) injury, either to complete a mission, help your buddies fighting alongside you or just in doing what you were supposed to do. It meant you took an oath to ‘Support and Defend the Constitution of the United States’… and lived up to your part of the bargain. Since there is no longer a military draft in this country, it meant you voluntarily signed up.

Why in the hell would you or anyone volunteer for this?

Was it a deep desire to serve your country? Or was it for the benefits you were promised such as furthering or continuing your education? Maybe it was learning something new, that sounded interesting to you? Or maybe (like me) you saw no better options in your life at the time. Possibly you were done with school, or dropped out; maybe you were unemployed and the idea of free food, housing and a steady paycheck were too tempting? Probably it was all or most of these along with the promises from your recruiter which made it sound even better. Were you talked into becoming a technician, plotting safe routes or supply lines in and out for the troops? Or a pilot? Maybe you were a combat cook, figuring out how to feed your troops with dwindling supplies? Maybe you were ‘just’ a grunt. Or any one of the hundreds of other jobs, thinking you would be better off after your service, when you discharged.

Were you thinking the same way as you huddled down in your foxhole with your head between your knees, hearing the impact of bullets, or the explosions going off all around? When the overwhelming smells of blood, piss, smoke and yes fear almost knocked you out. Were your thoughts still on what you were going to do when you got out, or were they closer to if you got out of there alive? What were you thinking as you heard screams and prayers coming from the foxholes around you?
It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter, as long as you served and served with honor. Every military job has it’s risks. What ever the reason; whatever military job you had and whether or not you served on active duty or as a reservist, whether or not you saw or were involved in any actual combat, you could have and that is what counts. As a Vietnam veteran once said, “you had your ass on the line”. Again, that is what counts. You are a military veteran, you served with honor and yes you do expect certain things for it, from your government and/or the people you helped and/or served, or just from your fellow citizens. That bargain you upheld from when you took ‘The Oath’ to when you received your honorable discharge, came with expectations by you also. In the book “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein, only military veterans had earned the right to vote. As a U.S. military veteran you are not asking for that or any additional rights, but:

You expect to be respected. You don’t need to be saluted or ‘thanked for your service’ all the time, but maybe it’s nice to hear on Veteran’s or Memorial Day.
You expect your veteran status to look good on a resume or application. Yes, you want to be hired or accepted based on your qualifications, but being a veteran should help, not hurt in that.
You expect help if and when you need it. You helped enough people during your service (your entire country and maybe other ones as well).

Not everything in life goes perfectly or according to plan. Did your plans include marriage or starting and raising a family? Use your VA home loan to buy a house? Were you going to get that college degree and then start your chosen career? Or put the skills you learned in the military to use? Did your marriage fall apart or the career you envisioned never come to pass? Or possibly the injuries or trauma you experienced (mental or physical) catch up with you and prevent you from achieving your goals. Where did you turn for help? Friends, family or a ‘grateful’ government? Too many veterans either didn’t have these options or the help wasn’t enough and they ended up poor, hurt or for some, hungry and homeless.

That shouldn’t happen but it does! The biggest problem with not getting help is that there are so many that need help, way too many. Yes there are a lot of generous people and organizations that try; but there are never enough of them, and/or never enough money for those that need. Yes, the Government tries to help; and there are lots of dedicated government employees who try to (believe it or not), but whether it is red tape, inefficiency or lack of funding or any of myriad other reasons, government help cannot always be counted on. Too many veterans are still on the street or hurting, any help from any people or organizations is always appreciated.

by Larry Shields
All rights reserved by author

What It’s Like To Be Homeless

people-850097_1280“Get a job, you bum”!
I slowly open my eyes, hearing a voice and those unkind words in my ears. Not anything I haven’t heard before. What I see is a suit, dark and cheap. Kind of like the ones I used to wear, when I had a job and a life. A face above the suit, nothing remarkable about it, except for the spittle forming at a corner of the mouth. Striped tie hanging down, almost touching my face. I look down along my prone body and see his leg moving back, as if to send send a kick my way. Perhaps to emphasize my ‘bumness’? I move a corner of the blanket I’m under (stolen, I mean donated from a ‘Goodwill’ box), just enough for him to see the switchblade in my hand. Wow, what fast reflexes he has! He is already moving away almost before I can cover up again. But not before I see the anger in his eyes; anger and disgust, that I dare to take up sidewalk space where he has to walk. Another day on the street begins.

I sit up and quickly scan around me, as a soldier might upon hearing a sudden noise. No cops around to try chasing me off before I can gather my things. Shoes still on my feet, blanket untouched. Backpack/pillow unopened; so far so good, looks like I still have all my ‘stuff’. It all does need washing however, so do I. When I can smell myself, I know it’s bad. Yes, reeking might be a better word. It explains how people smell me and wrinkle their noses in disgust even before they see me. Then the reactions get even worse. When I recover from my own stench, faces almost come into view. Nothing out of the ordinary, just random eyes and faces either looking or trying to not be caught looking at me. I hardly recognize faces anymore, too many go by to be anything but a blur. Well I do recognize the cops that usually chase me off, but have enough pity on me to let me move just out of their sight. I also (usually) recognize the one or two people that will put some coins or even a couple of dollars (breakfast!) in my gloved hand. No such luck in that way today, but nothing is missing either. In more good news, it’s not raining and I’m not freezing. Time to get moving and get going, somewhere.

First of course I think about what brought me to this living on the street; no home, family, job or money. For me it was …[Fill in the real stupid reason you ruined your entire life, here]…
Some suggestions: Cheated on spouse/drugs/drinking/stole from work/robbed someone or someplace/drove drunk and hurt or killed someone/hurt a child, well you get the idea. Or get creative and come up with something of your own. Whatever it is, someone has probably done it. Or just maybe it was something done to you, like being a casualty of military service. Or you just didn’t receive the help you needed when you needed it.Yes I am still to this day surprised and saddened at how I ended up like this. Every homeless person thought the same as I did at some point, that things would just work out. They always had. Until they didn’t.

I sling my backpack on and start walking (maybe trudging is more like it? I do have pain in my legs and everywhere else, the price of having a cement bed). I keep my clothes and myself as clean as possible, thanks to the kindness of priests at a nearby church. They let me wash my clothes and myself in their private area inside. As long as I don’t do it more than once or twice a week, the church doesn’t want me becoming a magnet for other homeless. I might not agree with that, but I can understand. I am in no position to argue it anyway. All I have to do is promise to attend services more often, which I do of course. I mean I promise to. The church does sound like a good place to start my busy (yea right) day.
I see a newspaper on top of a garbage can and grab it. Wow, I think it’s from today. I’m never sure what day it actually is, I never need to, but let’s see what’s happening in the world without me. Murders; wars, arrests and politicians making promises. Some things never change. Oh wait, the local team won, that’s different. I sit down on a bench near the church and against my better judgment glance at the ‘Help Wanted’ ads. I don’t expect to find anything, but I have to look, it’s a compulsion. Even though I can’t, I just can’t get my hopes up about anything. It hurts too much after. Hope is one of the many things I can no longer afford. Despite my reluctance, an ad actually catches my eye. It’s for a start-up in the field I used to work. Experience preferred; which I have, open interviews, and it’s only about a mile or so from here! The thoughts swarm (slowly at first, the only thoughts I have had for a while are about food and survival, but quickly gain speed and traction in my head); “what if, what if I actually got a job, this job! What if I could have a life again, a place to live with a roof and a refrigerator? And a bathroom of course”! Oh and keys. [Pop Quiz: how can you tell if you are in jail or homeless? Answer: you don’t have a key that opens anything. I no longer have any keys]. What if…what if… then I look at myself and realize what am I thinking? How am I going to get this or any job? How do I fill out an application with no address, no phone # and no references? With no way of proving I know the work? The next thought is how can I not try? The thought after is in the voice of an old drill sergeant “There you go thinking again”.

I rush into the church and my luck is holding out. I run (stumble?) my way to the priest by the alter and show him the help wanted ad. We talk and he convinces me, and/or I convince myself to go to the interview. He writes down a phone # I can say is mine, then we then say a prayer for my success. I know he is a good man who wants me to get a job and a life again but; I do wonder though if deep down he is praying for me to succeed, so there is one less homeless hanging around. I shave with an old razor and sponge bath in a bathroom sink. After my stomach growls loud enough to be heard, I eat a couple of pieces of bread I am offered, along with a glass of water. I don’t think it was communion bread, but that couldn’t hurt if it was, right? I pull a pair of slacks and a collared shirt out that were buried in my backpack, not too badly wrinkled. I don’t even remember where I got these from. Then the priest comes out with gifts, a tie and a pair of shoes that are just a little big on me (they might have belonged to him, ‘God bless him’). Believe me, too big is a lot better than too small. After I dress, I don’t even recognize myself. That can’t be a bad thing. A final quick prayer and a final “God Bless” and I am on my way to destiny, I hope (uh oh, there’s that word again, hope).

My luck is still holding out, (although I know at some time there will be a price to pay for all this ‘good luck’) it’s not raining. I know where the place is and the walk is not bad at all. I almost feel ‘normal’ and I’m almost smiling. Now I am at the place and handed a clipboard, pen and an application. I look around at all the other hopefuls, I don’t think I look too much worse than them. I fill out the application with the name on the ID (that has a pasted picture of me) and matching social security card I got from somewhere. I put down the phone # the priest gave me as well as an old address I used to live at. I finish and hand it back to the receptionist, who actually smiles at me! I then dash into the bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror, thinking of all the ways I could improve myself. I haven’t even finished this list in my head when my ‘name’ is called.

I actually remember how this goes, shake hands with the ‘younger than me’ interviewer and exchange ‘how are you’s’. Then the usual questions; which I have no trouble answering, even surprising myself (I had been told many times I should have been a sales person). Then the question came I had been dreading; “Why are you no longer employed at your last job”? The bull**** I came up with was that did not leave on the best of terms as I had quit to start my own similar business, which my former employer didn’t appreciate. Therefore they may not be ‘honest’ if asked about my work there. I then had to say that my business was not successful. This line actually seemed to work, somehow. Then the interview was over; we shook hands and again I actually received a smile, while being told that I should get a call from them in a couple of days. I think I may have even smiled back! I walked out smiling at the receptionist, trying but failing to not deceive myself into thinking that I could actually have a chance at getting the job. I’m surprised my mouth doesn’t hurt from all the smiling.

The next day was pouring rain, so I stayed huddled in my sleeping bag, only interrupted by the quick runs to snatch some food. As the interviewer had said they would call me in ‘a couple of days’ and having had better dreams than usual, I went back to the church two days later to find out if the company had called. The priest saw me and ran over. “Where have you been? The company called you later that day, they wanted to talk to you again”! “They must have really liked you”. He then dragged me inside to a room where I could have some privacy and handed me a phone, “Call them”! So I did. My heart sank and my head exploded as the voice on the other end told me how impressed they had been with me and that they had wanted to talk to me soon as they could. But when they didn’t hear from me, they had to offer the position to someone else. They would of course keep my application on file. Somehow I managed to not throw the phone against a wall, but I did rush out of there before I could do something not nice in a place where one should not do not nice things.

I managed to go to sleep that night on my concrete bed (with one eye open of course) , almost hoping someone would try something with me so I could hit them. I knew… I knew… I just knew to not get my hopes up and that bad luck or just my luck would strike. I still don’t know how I slept with all the self-recriminations running through my mind. But I did. Then I woke up to an all too familiar refrain in my ears:
“Get a job you bum”!
My hand tightened around my switchblade under the blanket and all I could think was:
“Why do I have a sudden urge to kill him”?

by Larry Shields
All rights reserved by author

Why Are There Homeless Veterans?

homeless-844213_1920It is estimated that on any given night in the U.S. over 40,000 veterans are homeless and living in the street or shelters (source: Google). The actual number is going to be higher than that, probably a lot higher. Yes, you’re right, no one should be homeless, veteran or not. Realistically, homes won’t be found for all that need them. That doesn’t mean to stop trying. A lot of people are of the opinion that if someone is homeless, it is because of something they did or didn’t do. Maybe they were just too lazy to get a job and would rather live off of government handouts or begging from hard working people. Maybe they have mental or physical disabilities and didn’t try to get help or try to overcome them. It could be the result of too many other possible reasons. Maybe, just maybe, their situation wasn’t caused by them or them alone. Or it might have been. Does that mean stop trying to help? No, can’t do that. No one deserves to be homeless, whatever the reason. Especially not the military veteran.

Think about it. Our military has freed countries from either dictators or religious jihads (especially in the last couple of decades). Lives were lost or troops came home with permanent injuries or disabilities. They did this is the name of democracy. Afterwards, people in those countries were able to start (or try to start) living normal lives after years of suffering. (I could describe some of the ways people were brutalized or mistreated, but that is not the point of this article). At the least they now have a taste of freedom and can hope to be able to live peacefully. Yes, I know this is still an ongoing process in most of these places, but it is more than they had before. Our troops are heroes for what they have been able to accomplish. Then they come home.

For most, finally coming home to the people that love them; whether it was after a deployment, discharge or retiring from the service, is a happy and joyous occasion. After months or even years of being separated; (which can be as stressful to those left behind as to the deployed person), they can enjoy one another again without worry (for the most part). Simple pleasures and even doing chores become reminders that there is a life besides the military. Home cooked meals will never have tasted better. Spending time with friends, family and all those that you missed while over there just might be the best part of all. That is of course, if you had anyone in your life to come home to.

But…(you knew that ‘but’ was coming) many, if not most or even all of our returning veterans come home changed in some way. Some don’t come home with all their body parts still attached. Others will have lost one or more of their senses (blind or deaf for example). Obvious physical disabilities like those are easy to diagnose and the veteran will usually receive as much help as can be given. Prosthetic limbs, mobility devices and/or support and training for adjusting to newfound conditions are offered and for the most part received. That support will also include financial assistance (such as VA disability).

What can be worse are the mental disorders. The trauma of not being the same as before you left and doubting you are or will ever be able to love and support those you love as you did. The mental scarring of experiences you went through or the inability to understand or describe how these affected you make mental disorders much harder to diagnose and or treat (if they can be treated at all). What if you were one of those returning veterans and you couldn’t find the proper words to describe to the psychiatrist or therapist how you woke up in a cold sweat one night, to realize you had your hands around your spouse’s throat? Or could it have been the fear of recrimination that kept you from mentioning that or anything similar in the first place. Possibly it was just the overwhelming sense of guilt that you came home alive, while so many others came home in body bags.

Any or all of those conditions or disabilities could keep you from realizing your dream of a normal life, with a steady income; a roof over your head, food on your table and maybe a car in the garage (for starters). What happens if there are no available jobs or jobs that will accommodate your disabilities? What are your options (as say a 21 year old who never had a credit card) when your dream of owning a home is shot down when your application for a VA home loan is denied for poor or no credit or not enough income? Yes, a VA home loan is guaranteed, but there is no guarantee you will qualify for it. What will you do when you are turned down for VA or SS disability? What if coming home to your family wasn’t quite the happy occasion you thought it would be?

After all you have gone through to serve your country and the suffering you may be going through, what happens when you find yourself with no income and no options? How will you feel when you have no job, no one supportive in your life and no home? When your bed is made of cement and trash, the label on most of your clothes say “Hefty” and your transportation are your feet and a shopping cart? How will you feel while thinking about how the people in those countries you fought for are living better than you do?

You feel … Betrayed! Is that a strong word to use? Yes it is! But how else can you feel when you have nothing and in your mind, you have become nothing. When you were willing to sacrifice mind, body and soul, but have nothing to show for it except mental or physical disorders or disabilities? When you expected promises made to you in return for your service to be kept. If you got anything at all, it was empty excuses and emptier promises. Instead of getting the help you needed you were shoved aside and literally and actually pushed out into the street. When the only words you hear now are ‘bum, psycho or addict? How else could you feel?

THAT’S! JUST! WRONG!

That is why any and all organizations to help veterans are needed! To correct the wrongs done to theses courageous men and women and help them get their lives back on track. To feed, clothe and shelter them and give them whatever other help they need. They have earned these things and are owed the ability to live the way every one else expects to, at a minimum. This help does come at a cost however. Mostly it is money that is needed. To pay for food, housing and support services for as many homeless veterans as possible. Even if just one gets the help he or she needs, it is worth it! Donations are always welcome of course. If not money, then consider donating items like food or clothing. There is also a lot of work involved in running such an organization. These require time and effort. Job opportunities are available, or show your appreciation for veterans by volunteering to help. Volunteers are always appreciated.

by Larry Shields
All rights reserved by author