To the Editior,
Ever been homeless? I mean down, right, without a roof and walls homeless. I was. I never thought of myself in those terms at that time – but I was.
It’s because I was an infantryman in Vietnam. The first couple of days in the country I stayed in the barracks or tent. But then we went out to our fire base. The fire base was usually the top of a mountain in the middle of the jungle that had been stripped of all trees and vegetation. There was a circular line of bunkers around the perimeter. A bunker was a partially underground room made of sandbags.
You could sleep in there if you wanted to fight the rats for the space. However, most of the troops I know, didn’t and felt it was better to sleep under the stars – even during the monsoons. You see, the monsoons made the conditions worse. The bunkers filled with water, which made the rats cranky. We were only on the fire base a couple of days out of the month. The rest of the time we spent doing search and destroy missions in the jungle. There you slept wherever you stopped and preferably on high ground. I know I wasn’t the only one – that’s been the lot of infantrymen since Washington’s day.
The reason I mention it is I remember being surprised when I was told that a disproportionately high percentage of our homeless population were veterans. It seemed counter-intuitive to me. I would have thought that someone with military training and discipline would surely be the kind of person employers would want to hire.
However, when you look at it from a different point of view, these guys have survival skills the average person doesn’t. In the case of the Vietnam vet, here’s a kid who only months before was wandering the halls of Clarkstown High School. He’s told that his country needs him to go across the world to fight against communism. Yet a year later when he returns, that same society calls him a war criminal. In a strange way he feels more accepted, more at home, with his platoon in the jungles of Vietnam than he does back here in the states.
If you know a veteran who is in need, please point him in our direction. Today’s veterans receive a better welcome home. However, the employment prospects are bleak and the percentage of homeless vets is still high.
Director, Veterans Service Agency of Rockland County