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Bringing Our Soldiers Home Includes Ensuring They Have a Home

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It might disappoint you, as it does me, to learn that in America, one-fifth of the homeless population is composed of veterans of war, with approximately 107,000 homeless veterans sleeping on the street each night. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that in 2009, more than 136,000 homeless veterans entered emergency shelters -- and that figure doesn't even include homeless vets who didn't enter a shelter.

There are roughly 23.8 million living veterans in our country. More than 4.3 million of those veterans have a family income of less than $20,000. Some 45% of homeless veterans report needing help finding a job and 37% need assistance finding housing.

Considering President Obama's pledge to return 33,000 troops by the end of the year, there is cause for concern regarding the quality of civilian life many veterans will experience.

The VA is wisely investing in homeless prevention programs which will address the needs of service women and men who are at risk of marginal living circumstances upon return to their home communities. Veterans need easily-accessible pre- employment skills including job readiness and skill training for market driven jobs. Specialized job training programs, such as HELP USA's Security Training School and Culinary Arts training, have generated livable wages for hundreds of homeless women and men.

We have learned from the challenges experienced by female veterans who have returned from tours on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan that many young families struggle to maintain independent housing and find livable income jobs. A key VA report warned "female veterans and young veterans are at high risk of becoming homeless, and both groups are growing within the overall veteran population." Many female veterans return from war service with mental health issues, having experienced sexual abuse and trauma during military service.

Recently, I sat down with one of those soldiers who left his esteemed military career to father his young son after the tragic loss of his wife. Robert LeBron, a U.S. Army Ranger, moved into HELP USA's shelter for homeless families in the Bronx as a last resort. Fortunately, the housing staff found a permanent apartment for Robert and his son within several weeks. Robert wanted to share his experience with the hope that the veterans who will be returning from Afghanistan over the next months can avoid the despair the LeBrons endured.

I'll share with you now some of what I learned from Robert LeBron.

Did you enjoy your military life?

Robert: To be honest, the military has a lot of good benefits. I had kids at an early age. So I said, let me go into the military because I can take care of my kids as a last resort. You know, I wanted to go to school and I wanted to do a lot of things. But the military offered the most opportunity to handle everything at one time, with the promise of an education and, you know, travel. I love to travel. And I know for a fact that I would have never gone to the places that I've gone to if it wasn't for the military. Like, all over the US and then other countries. And you know that promise was too much to pass up. I'd never been arrested coming from where I came from and my kids were the main reason why. I wanted to take care of my kids and have a little honor and prestige attached to my last name, you know?

Did your training prepare you for what you experienced in Afghanistan?

Robert: When I was there [basic training], I was like, what am I doing? Why am I here? This sucks! This really sucks! It's raining, it's cold, I just jumped out of a plane, I walked 10 miles and for what? But when I went to Afghanistan... we survived because of the training that was embedded in us.

What memory is the hardest?

Robert: Operation Anaconda was when a Navy SEAL, Neil Roberts, had fallen out of his helicopter on the way back from a reconnaissance mission. And his team found out about it, they went back, and they took fire from a Taliban position that they didn't know was there. So bad intel led to, you know, a Navy SEAL dying. So we went and we got spun up, so to speak, and we went to go help them out. And it was a 45-minute flight from Bagram to where we were, which was the Shaikah Valley. And, when we got there, it was bad. Like really bad.

Like our helicopter got hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, we hit the ground, and as soon as we came out two Rangers died. And then we get out and one ranger died in the helicopter, two other men in the front, like a pilot died, a medic died and three Rangers died. And, you know, we still had to finish the mission. It was the toughest thing that that I had to experience as a Ranger. Losing those friends and losing those people and almost losing my life to the point where it was unimaginable. Like, "I can't believe this happened." And then you have the survivor's guilt, "Why them and not me?"

What did you learn about what you were going through psychologically when you returned?

Robert: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -- there are, like, three clusters of symptoms: emotional, physical and mental. And as my psychologist puts it, the physical is, let's say if I talk to you about a specific mission, you can see me like, [gets animated] you know, we were doing this, you can see me, like, heighten my physical, you know, expression. Mentally, you can be in somewhat of avoidance kind of stage. You avoid crowds. You avoid going to the movies. You avoid going here because you are constantly looking over your shoulder, because you go through these tendencies that they teach you. They teach you, without a weapon, to just come right back to the same place... to the same place. Muscle memory to "Hey go get a job out in the real world." From being a killer to "Hey! People person or customer service."

So it's a big transition that a lot of people don't understand when they train you to do something that you normally wouldn't do as a civilian. And to try to go back to that -- the transition is the hardest part. Because you try to adjust and learn how to manage your anger, your emotions that intensity that they teach you to have. And then they expect you to automatically -- expect you to turn off. And that's unfortunate.

How was it manifested?

Robert: The mental part is nightmares, anxiety, depression. And I've gone through all of those symptoms, you know, through different things that trigger it. This hardship that we've gone through here at the shelter has caused a lot of depression. Not so much because of the shelter but because of the circumstance. You know, I fought for my country and then I come back and I'm homeless. You know? And... it hurts.

There were several factors that contributed to me seeking emergency help. First, I have been unemployed since leaving the Army in 2006. Second, my son and I were living in my mother's house until she got engaged and told us we had to leave. Lastly, I had to do something to provide stability for my son and myself. That was when I decided to go [to a shelter].


What kind of help was available?

Robert: The VA [Department of Veterans Affairs]... they have services, they provide services, but you got to go get them. As a soldier, you have to get up and go get your services. So you know you go, you get service connected, you get medical care, you get you know an ID card that says whether your service connected or not. And you know they help you with, for example, seeing a psychologist. Physical therapy, I see a physical therapist. There's a whole bunch of programs. Like, for housing specifically, there's a something called the HUD VASH. And when I went to the HUD VASH, it was closed at the time and they told me, "Come back in a couple weeks. It might open up." And when I explained that I was in temporary housing, they emphasized me coming back a lot more. So, I went back there, and my worker walked me through -- literally walked me through and metaphorically held my hand -- through the process. And a couple of months later I was eligible for an apartment. I had to look, I looked and I found an apartment.

And then you came here.

Robert: When I got here I knew what steps I needed to take. And that's the thing about a place like this is they give you the steps necessary. They lay it out for you. You know, you've got this step first and then that step and then that step, and then you'll be able to move on. This place is amazing. I mean, you know, they've given me so many opportunities here and it's just them opening the doors -- I just had to be the one to go through it. And, you know, like I said from Mr. Ruiz down to my case manager down to my housing specialist, you know, these people have provided a lot of help that I needed for my son and myself.

And, you know, this is a great organization and I'm glad to have came through here because I have a lot of horror stories from a lot of friends that have gone through shelters. And their like, "Well you're lucky to have your own place. You're lucky to have your own shower. We had to share showers. You're lucky to have security like that in the front." I love my security here.

It feels good to have somebody fight for me, you know? It feels good.

To hear Robert's story: