you're reading...

Magazine features

Land of the free, no home for the brave

Ryan Charles and the car he calls home

Published in the Sun-Herald on December 2, 2012.

When he’s ready to sleep, Ryan Charles reclines the driver’s seat of his Honda Accord as far as it will go, lies back and shuts his eyes. The car is parked on his old block, in the Brooklyn neighbourhood where he grew up, so he feels safe, and the routine is familiar, almost comfortable by now. He’s been living like this for six months and it feels like home.

The way he sees it, things could be worse. “I guess it’s just the infantry lifestyle rubbing off on me still,” he says. “I’ve slept in abandoned buildings in the field, so sleeping in a car is money to me.”

He keeps clothes in his mother’s apartment across the street and sometimes takes showers there. She can’t afford to take him in, but in any case, six years in the Army have changed him. “Everything’s different since I’ve been back. I was gone for a long time and my philosophy was ‘no news is good news,’ so I only called her twice a year,” he says. “Now we don’t see eye to eye. Some things she can’t understand.”

At the last count, on a single night in January 2011, there were 67,495 homeless veterans in the United States. This was a 12% fewer than the previous year, suggesting that aggressive efforts to tackle the problem are starting to make a difference. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, has set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015: a target viewed with scepticism by homelessness organisations. Almost 150,000 former servicemen and women spent at least one night in a shelter or emergency housing last year.

Charles enlisted after high school. He had been hanging with a bad crowd and told himself the Army would teach him discipline. He was shocked by the racism he encountered during basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, but when he was sent to Iraq in September 2007 he found the sense of purpose he had signed up for.

His unit – Bravo Company, Third Brigade, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division – was charged with clearing roadside bombs so that convoys could pass safely south of Baghdad, from the River Tigris in the east to the Euphrates in the west. Soldiers called it the Triangle Of Death because there were so many insurgent attacks.

“You’re always on guard, always looking around,” he remembers. “There’s a chance that one step could be your last step.” Incredibly, in a tour that was extended to 18 months, his company suffered no serious casualties.

Charles in Afghanistan

In January 2010, his unit was deployed to Forward Operating Base Tillman in Afghanistan. The fort is near the border with Pakistan, in the heart of Taliban country. Small groups of soldiers are sent out to isolated, temporary bases to hold territory. At FOB Munoz, where they dug the trenches and put up the walls themselves, Charles and his comrades came under attack almost every day, from small arms fire at the perimeter to artillery launched from the overlooking ridge and eventually, rocket-propelled grenades through the gate.

One day, on patrol, an Afghan soldier walking alongside him stepped on a mine. The explosion blew off both the Afghan’s legs beneath the knee and one of his arms. Charles and another soldier grabbed a ladder to use as an improvised stretcher and carried him back to base.

He began to have difficulty remembering simple tasks and often felt dizzy: classic symptoms of concussion or Traumatic Brain Injury, the signature wound of modern warfare. But when he reached four years of service, making him eligible for an honourable discharge, he signed for another two years, out of loyalty to his friends.

Soon afterwards, Private James O’Quinn was swept away when a dam collapsed. He was found days later, strung up, without clothes or weapons, and listed as presumed drowned, but Charles – who wasn’t there at the time – thinks more could have been done to save him. “We’re supposed to stick together, we don’t leave nobody behind, and the way it sounded, they left him, they was running for they own,” he says.

When he got back to Kentucky and made it clear to his superiors that he wanted out, they treated him with disdain, forcing him to do physical training rather than take transition workshops designed to equip veterans for civilian life. “From my leaders I was hearing ‘you ain’t gonna be shit, when you get out of the army what are you gonna do? We’re in a recession’”

Charles in Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Charles has been looking for work for a year. At security firms, he’s told that he needs proper certification. Hotels and shops don’t call him back, although he is presentable and well-spoken. On his Curriculum Vitae, the entries jump from high school, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to unemployed. “I feel like I’m carrying around a blank piece of paper,” he says. Last year, the unemployment rate among his peers, veterans aged between 18-24, was 29.1%.

The scale of the challenge facing the Veterans Affairs administration (V.A.) is immense. Veterans filed more than 1.3 million benefit claims in 2011. On average, these take eight months to process. “This system is going to be overwhelmed,” Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently told a congressional hearing. “Let’s not kid anybody – it’s already overwhelmed.” The department handles pensions for World War II veterans, plus new claims from Korea and Vietnam veterans as they grow old.

Because of advances in battlefield medicine, more of the 2.4 million men and women that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home: for every soldier killed in combat, another seven are wounded. When they file for disability compensation – as almost 50% of young veterans do – they claim an average of ten disorders or injuries each, twice as many as previous generations.

Secretary Shinseki has secured increased funding every year, in an era of severe cuts to domestic spending programmes, but he acknowledges that unacceptable numbers of veterans are still sleeping rough. “Our homeless veterans are counting on us to bring a sense of urgency to this fight,” he says. “The hill gets steeper and the air gets thinner the closer you get to the summit.”

The V.A. will issue 57,000 rent and mortgage subsidy vouchers next year, in partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is enough to cover every chronically homeless veteran, but as Tori Lyon, Executive Director of the Jericho Project notes, prioritising the most needy leaves others at risk. Although her organisation receives V.A. funding, many of the 200 veterans it houses have slipped through cracks in government care.

“It’s hard to tell an Iraq vet who’s a single mother with no place to live that she doesn’t qualify because she’s not a drug addict and she hasn’t been homeless for a year,” Lyon says. “There’s a real gap in the system, especially in New York where affordable housing is so scarce. That coupled with the high unemployment rate among young veterans, as well as the mental health issues that they’re facing when they come back, is almost a perfect storm for potential homelessness.”

Most of the NGOs that serve veterans are staffed by old soldiers determined to ensure that the current generation are treated better than they were. John Keaveney, who runs a residential treatment programme called New Directions in Los Angeles, came back from Vietnam with “a big time habit” and a stash of heroin sealed into the Polaroids in his photo album.

“We go downtown every day and give out food,” he says. “It’s a come-on: ‘any of you guys veterans?’ They say ‘I just got back from Iraq a year ago.’ And you’re already on the street? ‘Yeah, man. Heroin.’ I see my journey in them. I was pissed off at the world, so full of hate and anger that the drugs just made me comfortable.”

At his lowest point, after surviving nine years in a recently desegregated Georgia jail, only to find that nothing had changed when he got out, he broke into a V.A. office and held the administrator, Shad Meshad, hostage at knifepoint. Meshad agreed to drop the charges if Keaveney would get help for his addiction. The two men have been friends ever since.

As the Executive Director of the National Veterans Foundation, Meshad has been helping people navigate the V.A. bureaucracy for three decades. It remains a daunting, frustrating experience for young men and women who have returned from war. “It creates the attitude with the youth, like it did with Vietnam vets,” he says. “They got tired of the bullshit, so they walked away.”

Finding homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Los Angeles is easy: just head down to Skid Row and there they are, shuffling around with the rest of society’s cast-offs. In New York, it’s more difficult, even in the summer, because there are far fewer rough sleepers and shelters are understandably protective of their residents.

Djata Samod and the Suzuki jeep he lives in

After weeks of being stalled and eventually refused access by the V.A. and the New York Department of Housing, I decide to spend the day outside the Borden Avenue Veterans Residence. Djata Samod, a helicopter pilot in Korea and Vietnam, soon introduces himself and shows me the Suzuki jeep he has been travelling the world in for 23 years, as well as his dog tags and a passport showing his “government name” as William Maynard.

As older vets wander in and out to smoke cigarettes, a young man stands sullenly by the door, clutching a file. His name is Martin Nieves, a former private with the 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. He has been homeless for three months and this is his first day at the shelter. “It’s kinda small, but I can handle it,” he tells me.

In Iraq, he was a bodyguard for a senior officer at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. “Everywhere he went, I went,” Nieves says. “We were shot at. Three times we got grenades tossed at us. Nobody died, thank God.” The conversation starts like this, a few grudging words at a time, but after a while, he begins to talk. He has been out of the Army since January 2011, drifting from Washington, to Texas, to Pennsylvania, to New York, staying with family and friends for as long as they will have him and crashing in shelters when he runs out of options.

“I can’t keep a job because of my neck, my back, my ankles, my wrists,” he says. “It was the time we got bombed, banging up against the Stryker. One of the Iraqis was hiding on the side of the road and he threw a grenade. My best friend who was right by my side lost his eye, from the shrapnel.”

Martin Nieves

An initial psychological screening came up positive for PTSD and depression, but when he went to schedule a primary care appointment in July, he was told to come back in December. Because he didn’t get a full honourable discharge – “I started being late purposely so that I could get kicked out” – he only receives partial benefits. He’s trying to get it upgraded but the process takes months.

“I just stay awake,” he tells me. “In Iraq while we were sleeping there was artillery coming in almost every night. Now I don’t go to sleep. I used to be fun, going out all the time, spending time with my nieces and nephews. Now I just stay to myself as much as possible. I’ve been having a lot of anger issues and I don’t want to take it out on anybody.” He has eight sisters and one brother and has burned through one relationship after another.

It is a familiar story to Meshad: a young man altered by his wartime experiences, alienating the people he needs most. “Something happens and you retreat, you walk out of the house,” he says. “You don’t have a job and you don’t have money. So you get in your car or you get on a bus, and you just ride, trying to think, like a kid running away who realises there’s no place to go. Well, the difference between a child and a combat vet is he can survive anywhere. If he’s been in Iraq or Afghanistan this is a piece of cake: ‘I can find shelter.’ And you think you’re just gonna do it for the night.”

The second time I meet Ryan Charles, he has just come back from an appointment at a V.A. clinic. “They say I may be depressed, may have PTSD, may be drinking too much,” he shrugs. “I’m not going to fit the criteria, I’m not going to display all the symptoms.” He has started to ask questions of the system and accept its help, but still has no idea what benefits he may qualify for.

Winter is almost here. I ask him if he has a sleeping bag, at least, for the cold nights to come, when the windows of his car will frost up as soon as the sun goes down. He doesn’t. “I’m making do with what I’ve got,” he says. “I don’t have a plan. But I’m optimistic.”