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Back from Iraq - and suddenly out on the streets

Social service agencies say the number of homeless vets is rising, in part because of high housing costs and gaps in pay.

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After the Vietnam conflict, it was nine to 12 years before veterans began showing up at homeless shelters in large numbers. In part, that's because the trauma they experienced during combat took time to surface, according to one Vietnam veteran who's now a service provider. Doctors refer to the phenomenon as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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A recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that 15 to 17 percent of Iraq vets meet "the screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or PTSD." Of those, only 23 to 40 percent are seeking help - in part because so many others fear the stigma of having a mental disorder.

Many veterans' service providers say they're surprised to see so many Iraq veterans needing help so soon.

"This kind of inner city, urban guerrilla warfare that these veterans are facing probably accelerates mental-health problems," says Yogin Ricardo Singh, director of the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program at BVSJ. "And then there's the soldier's mentality: Asking for help is like saying, 'I've failed a mission.' It's very hard for them to do."

Beyond PTSD and high housing costs, many veterans also face an income void, as they search for new jobs or wait for their veterans benefits to kick in.

When Mr. Noel was discharged in December of 2003, he and his family had been living in base housing in Georgia. Since they were no longer eligible to live there, they began the search for a new home. But Noel had trouble landing a job and the family moved to New York, hoping for help from a family member. Eventually, they split up: Noel's wife and infant child moved in with his sister-in-law, and his twins were sent to relatives in Florida. Noel slept in his car, on the streets, and on friend's couches.

Last spring he was diagnosed with PTSD, and though he's currently in treatment, his disability claim is still being processed. Unable to keep a job so far, he's had no steady income, although an anonymous donor provided money for him to take an apartment last week. He expects his family to join him soon.

'Nobody understood ... the way I was'

Nicole Goodwin is another vet diagnosed with PTSD who has yet to receive disability benefits. Unable to stay with her mother, she soon found herself walking the streets of New York, with a backpack full of her belongings and her 1-year-old daughter held close.

"When I first got back I just wanted to jump into a job and forget about Iraq, but the culture shock from the military to the civilian world hit me," she says. "I was depressed for months. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. The worst thing wasn't the war, it was coming back, because nobody understood why I was the way I was."

Ms. Goodwin was determined not to sleep on the streets, and so eventually went into the New York City shelter system where, after being shuffled from shelter to shelter, she was told she was ineligible for help. But media attention changed that, and she was able to obtain a rent voucher. With others' generosity, she also found a job. She's now attending college and working with other veterans who are determined to go to Washington with their stories.

"When soldiers get back, they should still be considered military until they can get on their feet," she says. "It's a month-to-month process, trying to actually function again. It's not easy, it takes time."

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