Disabled and Homeless Veterans
“It is frightening to me just how many of these relatively young but severely damaged people feel like I am their last hope.”
I am aware that we can make statistics say whatever we want but the latest rumour I have gleaned, from an interesting network, is that 1 in every 20 people we walk by on the street is a Veteran. That is an appalling number but even if it is 1 in every 1000, it is still unacceptable. We have all been lulled into believing that there are expensive resources available for those same veterans and it is therefore not our problem. My experience of the past fifteen years is a testament that those resources are just not necessarily accessible to the people who need the most help – therefore it is our problem. It behooves all of us to be on our toes and at least be aware that far too many veterans are falling through the cracks (and might very well be on crack as a result).
This journey started out for me many years ago in my endeavour to help one young man get off the streets of Victoria. It is a remarkable phenomenon that when one reaches out a hand to help, there are several reaching back to grab it. I was overwhelmed by the need and the stories I heard but I was completely devastated when I learned about a Veteran living under the Johnson Street Bridge.
I was not prepared for what and who I found when I went off in search of him. Here was an educated man who had done one too many tours of duty and was now shivering in the cold; emaciated and scared to death. He was angry with me and wanted to know what evil organization had sent me. Eventually he understood I was there on my own and no one else was out looking for him. That statement alone should be enough to make you shudder! Like so many others, his family had abandoned him when he became violent and had transformed into a person they no longer recognized. If he had any inclination that resources were available to help him, he was just too damaged to jump through all the hoops required to get that help. After he endured a particularly nasty detox (They are all nasty), he signed the papers for a Veterans Affairs Pension that I put in front of him. When the application was denied – he turned on me and my own precarious health was put at risk. Eventually he got through the standard appeal process but not before I lost track of him twice more. One of the great skills of military training is we know how to hide! This presented a major challenge for me but luckily for him I have the same training. It took me several more months to find him again and I only managed that through an underground network of information in a very tightly knit street community. Luckily I had garnered the trust of a handful of those people who led me to his hideout. Once again he turned on me but his large build had now wasted away to a shadow of his former self. I was able to dodge his blows and when he passed out I had him taken by ambulance to hospital and into detox – yet again. The good news is he is now several years into a program to help him get his life back; tenuously reunited with his family and on track to a brighter future. The bad news is he is just one person of the many I found in similar circumstance. At the time I believed that surely he was an exception. I wish that were true!
It did not take long for word to get out that I was willing to help people apply for Veterans Pensions. It is frightening to me just how many of these relatively young but severely damaged people feel like I am their last hope. If I am the best that Canada can do for these veterans than we have a serious problem. As a result of an interesting network, I have gone on to find countless others but they have not all been a success. Not long ago one of them was shot and killed by police in his own home. He had come a very long way in a relatively short period of time but apparently the police felt he was a threat. There was another rather frightening experience that involved a great deal of explosives. I was left shaking my head (and shaking in my boots) wondering what the heck had happened that we have gotten so far off track. Did anyone really listen to General Romeo Dallaire or are we all so busy that our little lives keep us from compassion toward others?
Life can take many twists and turns but when I joined the military in 1973 I never imagined that I would do anything else. I had the career I loved but it all came to a crashing halt when I became desperately ill, shortly after graduating from RMC. As a result I had to find a way to get well and to reinvent myself. I endured my own hell in navigating the Medical and Veterans Affairs minefields. The difference between me and the friend I have described is I have people who care about me. I had someone willing to go through the entire Veterans Affairs Application and repeated appeals on my behalf because I was too sick to do it on my own. Therein is the problem. There are resources and programs available but it requires someone to be healthy and alert to navigate the process. Those who are in the most desperate need of help are just not capable of surviving the lengthy process. As a result we have cracked out veterans living on the streets.
If I had known, ten years ago, that I would end up with full time unpaid work doing what should be done by federal bureaucrats; I am not sure I would have gone off to find my friend. I found it very difficult to complain about my own treatment when my friends were coming back from Afghanistan in body bags. Like every other well trained Veteran I chose to move forward and make the most of every situation. I have always believed that things could always be worse and that I should just bloom where I’m planted. The reverse of that, of course, is that things could be better! It was not until I found out I was dead (according to Veterans Affairs) that I thought I had better admit defeat and speak up. I wrote a very long and detailed document to Colonel (ret’d) Pat Stogran as the Veterans Ombudsman. Shortly thereafter he convened his infamous press conference and suddenly we all understood that things were not quite right.
Funnily enough I felt a little bit better about it being a systemic issue and that I had not been singled out as someone to leave behind. Shortly afterward I travelled as far as Halifax from Victoria expressly to find those people whose names had been given to me. There are disabled and homeless veterans in every part of this vast country who are in need of, and probably eligible for support. One of the people I eventually tracked down was an old friend. He was not particularly keen on speaking with me at first. When he eventually agreed to meet I was shocked at how this man I remembered as gregarious and fun loving was now so angry and morbid. You will be hearing more about him in his own words. He is doing so much better (largely because he has an amazing wife) but he needs the support of all of us if he is to continue on his “Long Walk to Sanity”.
All of this begs the question: If a gibbled up old pencil pusher with very limited stamina and no financial resources could ferret out these people – imagine what we could do if we really put our heads together? I am under no delusion that the infrastructure that is supposed to be helping Veterans is going to get sorted out quickly (if at all) and if so it will take people with more clout than me. That does not allow the rest of us the luxury of apathy. These are our friends, family, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who are in need of help. One of the many great skills I learned from a fabulous Military Career was how to break down the impossible into bite size tasks. I suggest that we can break this down pretty quickly if we each just find and help one person. I know everyone is busy but if we all just searched our memory banks for someone who has fallen off our radar – this problem could be sorted out. Reach out to an old friend and find out what is going on their life. Don’t be satisfied with meaningless banter as you might be the reason that person chooses not to commit suicide today. I have come to learn that meaningless banter is enough to set off an explosive PTSD episode so keep your wits about you. Don’t ask “How are you?” unless you are prepared for the answer. Another thing I learned in the military was “Never ask a question for which you do not want an answer.” That one act alone could mean suicide for a very desperate person and believe me there are very desperate people right across this country.
My friend in Halifax eventually learned and told me about rag tag groups of amazing volunteers. Dennis Manuge and Jim Lowther are not sitting back waiting for someone else to take charge, they have both demonstrated leadership that deserves recognition in our future annals of History. Dennis absorbed all the blows on behalf of hundreds of disabled veterans (for virtually no personal gain) in a landmark decision that will see SISIP clawback reversed. Jim heads an organization called Veterans Emergency Transition Services whose Tag Line is “The Men and Women who protected our home – should never be without one”. I am immensely proud of them all but at the same time rather disgusted that there is even a need for them to do this.
I spend as much time as I possibly can with Maureen Eykelenboom and www.boomerslegacy.ca. Though this organization I have learned something that concerns me even more than what I have previously described. I have come to know many still serving members who are deliberately staying below the radar for fear of reprisal and discharge. They need help but are afraid to seek it out and that makes me very nervous. Last time I checked they were armed!
M0288, Roxanne Rees, Class of 1983