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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)

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The debate comes as Army studies have found that up to 30 percent of soldiers coming home from Iraq have suffered from depression, anxiety or PTSD. A recent study found that those who have served multiple tours are 50 percent more likely to suffer from acute combat stress.

Veterans' homeless shelters across the country, such as the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training in Baltimore, are bracing for increased demand. "The wave has not hit yet, but it will," said retired Army Col. Charles Williams, MCVET's executive director.

Nearby, the South Baltimore Station shelter is doubling the size of its program in anticipation of the Iraq war vets it expects to serve, said Woody Curry, the center's program director. He thinks it will be several years before they start showing up in large numbers.

"Usually it takes a period of time before it surfaces -- the PTSD," he said. "And the military mentality leads you to try to tough it out and not say anything."

He said he was particularly worried about members of the National Guard and Reserves who return to their civilian lives after their service. "A lot of these guys were just everyday working people, and then you put them in a situation like that," he said. In Iraq, "you're on a hyper-vigilant state all the time. You can't turn that off. It becomes who you are."

Meanwhile, a report by the Democratic staff of the House Veterans Affairs Committee found that from October 2005 to June 2006, the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking services from walk-in veterans centers doubled, from 4,467 to 9,103.

"It's clear from the report that Vet Center capacity has not kept pace with demand for services, and the administration has failed to properly plan and prepare for the mental health needs of returning veterans and their families," U.S. Rep. Michael H. Michaud (D-Maine), a member of the committee, said in a statement.

But Dougherty said the increase shows that more veterans were receiving treatment, and that the department's efforts to reach out them has succeeded. It has started sending letters to vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with the location of the nearest veterans center and "encouraging them to go," he said.

"One of the big differences now is we're much more in a preventative health-care mode than we were in the past," he said. "We're hoping by getting that early intervention we'll be able to take care of them.''

Although many vets suffer from PTSD, "epidemiologic studies do not suggest that there is a causal connection between military service, service in Vietnam, or exposure to combat and homelessness among veterans," according to the Veteran Affairs Web site. Rather, homelessness in veterans is cause by an amalgam of forces: family support, finances, education, mental illness -- the same factors that cause homelessness in the general population.

The veterans department is going to considerable lengths to reach out to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families, Dougherty said. There are also specialized services for women, who are an increasing part of the military force and are seeing combat in Iraq. Meanwhile, the total number of homeless veterans has gone down from about 250,000 10 years ago to about 194,000 this year.

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