It’s the result of locked-in DENIAL.
Public DENIAL. Government DENIAL. Veterans’ DENIAL.
Part of the public’s apathy is unawareness and an assumption that Canada looks after its veterans.
Part of the government’s inability to cope with the problem is exasperated by veterans’ reluctance to admit they have problems, and that stems from pride and stoicism stamped on their souls while in military service. Soldiers don’t goldbrick. Soldiers don’t break down.
So, imagine the shock of one veteran when he was serving coffee at a homeless shelter in Halifax, October 2010, to realize that he had served on the same submarine as this man whose cup he was filling with coffee.
That chance encounter changed Jim Lowther’s life. “I was so taken aback, I was speechless! How could it be that someone who served his country could be in this situation? I know he could tell from the look on my face how shocked I was. He informed me that he was not alone on the streets. He began to point out other veterans in the room: five in total.”
The reality of their existence and circumstance deeply dsiturbed Jim. “I felt it was my duty, not only as a fellow veteran, but as a Canadian to do something to help.”
As Jim found out, soldiers’ bodies and minds break down through no fault of their own. It’s the occupational hazard of today’s battlefields, more so than at any other time in history. Because of IED explosives, there are more brain injuries. The same soldiers rotated over and over again are exposed to repeated and sustained adrenaline rushes–something science is learning the brain can’t tolerate. Modern medical technology keeps alive soldiers who would have died from similar injuries in all previous wars.
This is what Canada’s youngest veterans have endured through the past ten years, but before Afghanistan, Canadian peacekeepers silently suffered in as many and as devastating ways because they were not perceived to have been under battle conditions by those at home from the 1960s on. At times, it was even worse for them because the United Nations’ Rules of Engagement prevented them from taking action. The soul suffers nothing worse than being a helpless bystander.
In May 2010, CTV News was the first to warn of a growing concern for veterans at risk of homelessness. The ombudsman for Veterans Affairs Canada, Colonel Pat Stogran, acknowledged his fear that homelessness was a problem for former members of the armed forces.
The only study conducted on homeless vets at the time was by the University of Western Ontario, and it didn’t tkae into consideration the increasing cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other Operational Stress Injuries. It concluded, “Veterans accustomed to the rigid structure and unique culture of the military often find it difficult to adapt to civilian life — a struggle that can lead them to the streets or the bush.”
The Veterans Affairs director in the Vancouver office, Adrienne Alford-Burt, painted a broader picture. “Sometimes when people come back from very traumatic experiences — of they don’t have a good support network in place or they don’t have advanced coping skills, they may end up falling through the cracks in the system.”
When disabled or mentally wounded veterans end up on the street, it’s nearly impossible for government agents to track them down, observed Gary Zwicker, once homeless himself for three weeks. “VAC officials carrying clip boards and dressed in three-piece suits intimidate homeless vets.”
Jim Lowther and Gary Zwicker eventually joined forces to form their own rescue operation they call VETERANS EMERGENCY TRANSITION SERVICES for the Halifax area. They have modeled their concept after the Cockrell House in British Columbia.
Jim and Gary have more success than VAC officials in getting homeless vets to approach them. Former comrades recognize them on the street and come forward to tlk to them.
Getting funding to support VETS is proving to be an unexpected hurdle. Jim and Gary started out charging a membership fee, but people were hesitant to join because they didn’t want to become personally involved with the homeless vets the two men along with another friend, John Percy, found on the streets. Many have praised the work VETS is doing but they don’t back up that praise with donations.
When Jim appealed to the Canadian Veterans Advocacy for help, it created the PENNIES FOR VETERANS campaign across Canada. It will establish a fund to help build VETS operations in every city where homeless vets are identified.
In the weeks to come, we will introduce you to individual cast studies of homeless vets and follow through with VETS’ rescue efforts.
In the meantime, check out Pennies for Veterans and make your donation. You can also contribute directly to VETS in Halifax to help them.