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How Can You “Come Home” When You Are Homeless? — 2011 Veteran’s Day Reflection

When I reflect on the few years after “coming home” from Bosnia, the years before some friends and a veteran counselor helped me to “get my head back on straight”, I realize that I had more than my share of luck.  I was lucky to be in a university that had a large and experienced veteran’s services office and veteran population (it was co-located with a large VA Hospital).  I was lucky to have found a community of friends rather quickly after I returned to the States.  I was lucky that I became connected with a veteran’s counselor who knew just how much to push without scaring me off.  I was lucky that I had a job (waiting tables) that gave me quite a bit of flexibility, and which did not ask anything of me when I  was not there.  I was lucky that I had the GI Bill and the Army College Fund as a hedge against poverty…

And, even with all that luck, I ended up sleeping in the back of my truck for a few weeks.

Looking back now, from the perspective of having all the training on combat stress reactions that I have had as a military chaplain, and with all the experience of having counseled soldiers who are also coming home from war, I can see the patterns.  It was about 18 months after I came home, one of the crisis points for combat stress reactions.  I had reached a point in a relationship (where I was living in someone else’s home) where I simply could not make a deeper commitment… and such a deeper commitment was needful.  So, I left.  I just moved out, with no plan where I was going to go or what I was going to do.

I had had trouble paying my bills earlier.  Not necessarily because I did not have the money, but just because the kind of longer-termed planning that you need to have to successfully pay bills was not something I was doing very well at that time. That struggle to pay bills and rent on time (or to remember I even had to pay them) was part of the decision I had made some 9 months earlier to move in with my then girlfriend.  I could just give her money, and she handled all of the rest.

You see, in the military, none of my basic needs depended on whether or not I remembered to pay my bills.  I lived in the barracks.  I ate in the mess hall.  My heat and electricity were part of living in the barracks.  I paid my phone bill and my cable bill, but these were actually set up as debits from my paycheck, so I did not have to worry about them whenever I was deployed overseas.  Even my car payment (for the short time I had one) was directly taken out of my paycheck.  I do not remember paying a single recurring bill during the whole time I was active duty… and while I was in Bosnia I left my checkbook with a responsible friend who took care of all those things for me.

And so, coming home to the civilian world, all of the daily tasks of paying rent and bills were a new thing for me.  Add to that how easily distracted I was (part of my combat stress reaction), how I was prone to making major changes in my life with almost no forethought or planning, and how little I thought any of this “civilian-stuff” mattered, considering what I had seen in Bosnia.  If civilization was as fragile as it had seemed when I was in Sarajevo, then what was the point of caring about bills, credit ratings, and late-fees on rent?  Or going to work for that matter (something I did less and less of as time went on)?

I remember thinking how attractive it would be to just throw all of this civilization stuff out the window.  I remember clearly spending hours dreaming of buying a cheap camper-trailer, and just moving out into the local National Forrest… a dream of turning my back on all of this “myth” of civilized life.

When I ended the relationship that also accounted for where I lived, I spent three weeks or so sleeping in the covered bed of my old white Datsun pickup truck.  I told friends who knew I had left my then girlfriend that I was staying with other friends…and did spend a few nights on different couches… but I spent more nights on an air mattress in the truck, parked at a couple of sites in the national forest.  As I was still in school, I showered at the gym of the university.  Most people had no idea…

A friend, who later became another girlfriend, realized where I was sleeping, and decided she was having none of it.  First, she insisted I stay with her (on her couch), and then she and a professor of ours helped me move into his newly refinished basement apartment.  He made a deal with me on the security deposit that I could pay it in installments, or I would not have been able to afford moving in.  Both the professor and my friend encouraged me to find someone to talk to about what was happening with me, which led to the relationship with a veteran’s counselor that transformed my life.

Through all of this, most people did not know what was going on in my life.  Even with all my bravado thoughts of “getting away from civilization”, it would be difficult to describe the shame that was associated with not being able to manage even such basic aspects of life as paying rent or having an apartment of my own.  I had been a soldier, a peacekeeper, and an intelligence analyst.  Work that I had done had affected U.S. National Policy.  I had worked out of a U.S. Embassy, and provided briefings for four-star generals… and now, just eighteen months later, I was sleeping in the back of my truck in the national forest, hoping that I could save up enough money to buy a used pop-up camper.

What answer did I have for why my life was busily falling apart around me?  Because I was not enough of “a man” to come back from Bosnia, a country most people could not even find on map much less realize we had sent soldiers there, and hold my life together.  So, I did not reach out for help.  I was too ashamed.  I was lucky to have had some people see through the wall I was building.

Rev. Dr. Chrys Parker, a psychologist, minister, and veterans counselor I have worked with, describes that there are several different categories of physiological reactions that the body has to combat stress.  We all know the symptom set that gets portrayed in the media… the hyper vigilance, the quick reaction to threats, the flashbacks, the anger and regular use of alcohol for self-medication.  Every time a television show or a movie portrays someone with PTSD, they are on the ragged edge, suicidal, and barely holding on…

Think Mel Gibson’s character in the first Lethal Weapon movie, and you have the stereotypical image… and while Hollywood and the media over-play that image, some of the details are true… but it is only one form of physiological reaction to combat stress.

There is another major, and very different kind of reaction… what Dr. Parker calls the “Hunkered-in-the-Bunker” syndrome.  It is a withdrawal from the world.  Where in the other symptom-set the body is bio-chemically preparing to “fight”, in this symptom-set the body is bio-chemically preparing to “freeze”.  People who are experiencing this kind of reaction to combat stress will close in on themselves.  They lose their trust in the world, and in other people.  They are far less seen by society, because they do not want to be seen.  They are always on the lookout for threats, from within the perceived safety of isolation.  They “self-medicate” often with sugars and starches, including alcohol… but it is just as likely to be candy and junk-food.  They are far harder to identify and to help, because they are not seen within society, even before becoming homeless.  And many of the veterans who become homeless are this faceless group, who hide from society, and are hunkered in their own little bunkers.

This was the road I was headed down.  I was in the process of “hunkering-in-a-bunker” when I left what I had of a home.  Knowing what I know now, if the wall I was building had not been seen through when it was, and if one overly intrusive friend had not asked me a difficult question (and then had not refused to accept my ready-made lie) I would likely have built my bunker to the point little could penetrate it.  And then, if some others had not gone out of their way to help me…

I chose to tell my story today, this Veteran’s day, because of the shame that attaches itself to veteran homelessness.  It took me years to accept that the path that I was on the years after Bosnia was not my fault, but was a natural result of my combat stress reaction.  In truth, it took my saying the exact same thing to soldiers I have counseled over and over again for it to really sink in that it applies to me as well.  Now, I can own that not only did I get the help I needed when I needed it, but I was willing to accept that help when it came… and that is something for me to be proud of, not ashamed of.

I believe we are just seeing the beginning of an epidemic of veteran homelessness in the coming years.  When you combine the combat stress issues that relate to repeated deployments, growing veteran resistance to medication-based PTSD treatments, and a major downturn in the economy and job market that is hitting veterans especially hard (because they often return home to some of the most economically challenged areas of our country)… you set up the circumstances for such an epidemic.  And… we’re about to downsize our military again.

This month at our church in Ventura, we are wearing blank dogtags to symbolize the plight of homeless veterans.  We have created a display at the church (seen above) where each blank dogtag symbolizes a homeless veteran in Ventura County.  The numbers are probably far higher than we know, but even what is hanging on our display is disturbing.  Today, the 100,000 homeless campaign released a study that says that homeless veterans are more likely to die on the streets than non-veteran homeless… and I can’t help but wonder how much of that is tied to unsupported combat stress reactions.

Because you can’t “come home” if you have no home to return to.

Yours in Faith,

Rev. David


2 Thoughts on “How Can You “Come Home” When You Are Homeless? — 2011 Veteran’s Day Reflection

  1. Thanks for sharing your story, David. So sorry you had to go through that horrible time. Hope things are going well in your new location. Your name came up at UCE last Sunday, not surprisingly, as someone who made great contributions to UCE.

  2. Pingback: Veterans Day, the challenges of pluralism, and more UU blogging « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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