Fighting for Homeless Vets Who Fought for Us

10/14/2011 05:50 pm ET | Updated Dec 14, 2011

As the fourth generation in my family to serve in the armed forces, I feel a particular affinity for current and former soldiers, sailors, Guardsmen, airmen and Marines. As a childhood resident of a battered women's shelter, I also have a deep concern for those who have no place to call home.

I am grateful for the chance to put my experiences, both good and bad, to use in my most important mission yet: eliminating homelessness among veterans.

On a single night in January 2009, more than 75,000 veterans were homeless. In that same year, about 149,000 veterans spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program. This is nothing less than a national tragedy, and it cannot continue.

Veterans fought for our home. We have a duty to fight for theirs.

The risk factors that lead to homelessness are universal. Job loss, health problems, a missed rent check: these can affect anyone. But they can be particularly acute for veterans who have made sacrifices in order to fulfill their military duties.

I know this well. My own father, who served in the Navy in Vietnam, suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. This led to his being unable to work, alcoholism, and even violence. When I was nine, my mother removed my brother and me from our home.

Eventually, my father connected with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for help. He sought counseling, got sober, remarried, and by all accounts was a good husband to his second wife. But he never saw his children again. Had he and my mother known earlier about the resources available, our family's situation may have turned out differently.

My mother went on to earn a college degree, and built a permanent home for my brother and me. But there are other children out there who aren't so fortunate. We need to spread the word that veterans are eligible for assistance, through VA, with healthcare, employment, job training, access to education and housing. They and their loved ones can call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-4AID-VET at any time to speak with a trained responder and be connected with these resources.

Many veterans think of VA as just a medical-service provider, or for education benefits under the under the GI Bill. VA is both of those things -- my own GI Bill benefit made it possible for me to complete my Master's degree in Legislative Affairs -- but VA is also so much more.

This week, VA kicked off a national campaign to eliminate veteran homelessness that will continue in 28 cities around the country through the end of the month. In Washington, D.C., local efforts at the DC VA Medical Center included a job fair for veterans with healthcare, work therapy and housing counselors on site to discuss available resources, and partner agencies and organizations who shared their contributions to this important work.

All of us can help promote this effort. If you know a veteran who is homeless, or is at risk of homelessness, please encourage him or her to call the hotline. When veterans and their loved ones make the call, they take a crucial step in transforming their lives.

Citizens can also help veterans by aiding them in transferring the skills and knowledge they gained in their military service to civilian employment. For example, if every veteran small-business owner pledged to hire one fellow veteran in the next year, we might have enough jobs for those servicemen and -women returning home from current conflicts overseas.

And everyone can visit the White House's Joining Forces website and explore ways to help serve military and Veteran families. Doing so is not only our civic duty: it is a privilege.

I wish that my father had availed himself of VA services earlier. He entered the service in the proud tradition of his brother-in-law, who stormed the beaches of Normandy; my grandfather, who fought in WWII for the Army Air Corps; and my great-grandfather, who was a cavalryman. He -- and his family -- could have greatly benefited from a helping hand when he was making the transition to civilian life.