From Serving in Iraq To Living on the Streets

Aaron Chesley, 26, is part of a new crop of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who are struggling with homelessness.
Aaron Chesley, 26, is part of a new crop of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who are struggling with homelessness. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007

It was a bad week for Aaron Chesley. He talked back to the staff at a Baltimore homeless shelter, got into an argument with a fellow veteran and missed an appointment for his post-traumatic stress disorder counseling session.

"Are you still watching the news?" his counselor, Anthony Holmes, asked.

Maybe that's what had set Chesley off. He had been showing progress since he came to the program last fall. But television footage from the war could cast him back in Iraq in an instant, back to fingering the trigger of his machine gun, scanning the horizon for insurgents. And Holmes knew it wouldn't take much for Chesley to land back on the streets.

"No. If the news is on, I turn my back," Chesley said.

In a homeless shelter filled with Vietnam War veterans, Chesley, 26, a former Catonsville High School honors student who joined the West Virginia Army National Guard in 2000 to help pay for college, was the only one in the facility who fought in the country's latest conflict. But across the nation, veterans of recent combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are slowly starting to trickle into shelters, officials say.

The number of homeless veterans from recent wars is hard to gauge. From 2004 to 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs provided shelter to 300 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan tours, out of the tens of thousands who have served.

That figure "is not even close to accurate," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, because it doesn't include the "others sleeping in buses, their cars or on the streets."

In New York City alone, he said his organization has helped 60 homeless veterans since 2004.

As in the Vietnam War era, when thousands of vets ended up homeless, there are already signs that the recent conflicts are taking a traumatic psychological toll on some service members. Many veterans' advocates said that despite unprecedented attempts by the military and Veterans Affairs to care for veterans, increasing numbers of the new generation of warriors are ending up homeless.

"This is something we need to be concerned about," said Cheryl Beversdorf, president of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a Washington-based nonprofit.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the wars will spark a significant uptick in homelessness. Peter H. Dougherty, director of Veteran Affairs' Homeless Veterans programs, said that the administration is "light years ahead" of where it was during the Vietnam era. Without a draft, today's all-voluntary military is "better physically and mentally prepared" for combat, he said. The department now also provides free health care for two years after Iraq and Afghanistan vets get out of the military, and it's focusing on preventive services that help veterans and their families cope.

"We are continuing to expand services, but we don't see any influx yet," he said.

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