Editorial: Remembering Living Veterans on Memorial Day

By Becky O'Malley
Friday May 25, 2007

Drivers leaving the freeway at the Fifth street exit in San Francisco often find their cars besieged by several men carrying signs: middle-aged or older, many though not all African-American, disheveled, some with teeth missing. Frequently they wave signs, hand-lettered on cardboard boxes, saying things like “I’m a veteran who needs help.” Or “Will take any kind of job.” It’s easy to keep the windows rolled up and drive on. 

If you get off BART in downtown Berkeley, it’s a bit harder to avoid the supplicants as you leave the station at street level. They’re not so likely to carry signs, but rely on spoken pleas and eye contact to make their case. Still, most people manage to look elsewhere. 

Meanwhile, the Iraq misadventure continues, seemingly without any end in sight. A valiant effort by congressional Democrats to bring it to an end by withholding funds has fizzled for lack of enough Republican support to override a Bush veto. The 2008 presidential campaign is underway, and concerned Americans are counting the days until Bush can be sent packing. Others who think we can’t wait that long are promoting impeachment.  

Each day that the Iraq war continues, the number of potentially indigent and homeless men (and now women) that we will see on our street corners increases. Consider these statistics from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans:  

• 23 percent of the homeless population are veterans. 

• 33 percent of homeless men are veterans. 

• 47 percent served during the Vietnam era.  

• 67 percent served for three years or longer.  

• 76 percent experience alcohol, drug, or mental health problems. 

And this war promises to produce even more damaged veterans wandering our streets, as many young people return from Iraq with traumatic brain injuries. Because of improvements in body armor, coupled with concussions caused by the increased use of improvised explosive devices, soldiers may escape visible bodily injury and yet have long-lasting or even permanent brain damage. A report from the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) says that in earlier wars such injuries accounted for 14-20 percent of surviving combat casualties, and now the number is even higher. Men and women with injuries like these may appear perfectly normal externally, and yet suffer from all kinds of trauma-related conditions. According to the DVBIC, “Difficulties experienced as a result of a closed-head blast injury include post-concussion complaints such as decreased memory and attention/concentration, headaches, slower thinking, irritability, and/or depression.” Many with these problems will end up on the streets. 

Memorial Day is now celebrated conveniently on the last Monday in May. Californians think of it as the first good beach weekend, a day for barbecues and baseball. But it used to be called Decoration Day, always observed on May 30, a day when people went to cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of veterans, especially those of the great bloody conflict which northerners called the Civil War and southerners called the War Between the States. A very high percentage of those who were injured in that war didn’t survive, but those who did were honored and cared for by the folks at home. The Veterans’ Administration hospitals in my youth were splendid establishments with verandas for rocking chairs and rolling green lawns, places where veterans who needed help could live out their days in peace.  

But no more. Horrendous conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital are now coming to light. NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling has done a series of pieces on experiences of veterans at Fort Collins, Colorado, reporting that those with mental conditions of the kind associated with traumatic brain injury have had trouble getting proper care. Care for veterans has been going downhill ever since the Vietnam War, when it was possible for well-connected men like George Bush to escape combat, leaving regular guys, many of whom are now today’s homeless veterans, to take the hits.  

Many of us even way back then knew what was happening, but felt powerless to stop it. Every time I hear Danny Zwerdling’s excellent reports (I don’t know him) I’m reminded of his grandfather, Ozias Zwerdling, whom I did meet long ago. In 1970 I was managing a congressional campaign for an under-funded and ultimately unsuccessful anti-Vietnam-war congressional candidate in Ann Arbor, and we rented a storefront campaign headquarters from Ozias. I remember him as a small, white-haired bent old man with a heavy accent—and when he heard what we were up to he immediately cut the rent to almost nothing, because he was strongly opposed to the war. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, they used to say in the Midwest. 

That war was eventually stopped, as this one will probably be, but many more lives were destroyed before the end came. That’s why every day counts, because every day means more of our young people killed or injured in ways that will affect the rest of their lives. Even without a draft, the consequences of the war in Iraq are getting closer to home for many Americans. More and more of us know people who face combat duty.  

One of my friends has a young cousin who enlisted as a teenager after his mother’s death, lured by the usual promises of getting an education. He’s now awaiting being shipped out to Iraq in November, clearly part of the unannounced “Second Surge” which the press is starting to uncover. One of my daughter’s friends from high school, a school teacher in his forties with a family, has been called up in the reserves. Another friend’s nephew is due to be discharged from the Navy’s submarine service any day now, but his family fears he’ll be held over and sent, like many Navy and Air Force personnel lately, to carry a gun in Iraq.  

What can we do? There are many ideas. Some write letters to papers like ours or to papers with more conservative opinion pages. (We get many more of these than we have room to print, and among our readers they’re preaching to the choir anyway.) Others lobby Congress: not only Barbara Lee, who doesn’t need it, but Ellen Tauscher from over the hill, who does. Keeping people like Jerry McNerney in Congress at the next election and adding more of them is essential, but what else? The usual protests, marches, pickets, direct actions—all are worthwhile, none a silver bullet, but we have to keep at it. 

But while we’re working on stopping this war, let’s not forget the victims of earlier wars, many of whom can be encountered on the streets of Berkeley. We owe them a lot more than Berkeley politicians’ latest ploy to get unsightly people out of sight and out of mind: tickets for loitering on the sidewalk or smoking on the street or peeing in the bushes.  

Especially because national veterans’ programs are falling apart, every veteran on our streets (one of every three homeless men) deserves a clean and comfortable place to sleep, enough to eat, and physical and mental health support. When we’ve accomplished that, we can talk about solving whatever “street behavior” problems they’re perceived as causing.