Friday, February 4, 2011

Leave No Wounded Behind

“We leave no wounded behind. Well, they can be spiritually and emotionally wounded, and they don't need to be left behind, either." 
 --Vietnam Vet, Formerly Homeless
Salt Lake City Public Library

Tuesday night last week, I attended a public screening for Street Vets by Isaac Goeckeritz, a new documentary on individuals living in Ogden's Homeless Veterans Fellowship (HVF), a VA program focused on helping veterans of the Vietnam War.

The Nancy Tessman Auditorium is cylindrical in shape and sports a wavy ceiling. As part of Salt Lake City’s new library, It orbits like an island outside the library’s sheer stone facade in a moat of shrubs. My husband and I scanned the audience and gathered that out of 300 seats, there were about 60 people there. It was the same night as President Obama's State of the Union Address, which may or may not be the reason for the small number in attendance. The audience was mostly Caucasian with a handful of individuals of other races. There seemed to be an equal number of men and women. There were adults of a variety of ages, two infants (one was my own), and a small child. Most were dressed casually. The few people who were dressed a little more formally, I discovered, had some connection to the production of the show.

A tall, white man with a long-sleeved dress shirt, sweater vest, and tie introduced the film from a miked podium on the auditorium stage. “These veterans are not the type of people who blame their problems on others,” he said (paraphrase). He then commended Isaac for his great patience. Rather than rushing through the film process, Isaac took a year to get to know the veterans at HVF, so that they would trust him well enough to open up and share the things they did in the documentary.

The film opened with a close-up of a medium dark-skinned man (gray-peppered mustache, thick, red-rimmed glasses, cross earring, base-ball cap) working with a paint brush on a large canvas. The central image was a group of soldiers (one representing each major American war) around a fire on an American flag background. He spoke about his experiences, but a speech impediment rendered him barely comprehensible. Apparently, he and another homeless friend had spent some time living in a condemned building, which they had transformed into an art studio. He has since found some success as a local artist.

The composition of the documentary included interviews with HVF residents, as well as the therapeutic staff.

It's important not to just put them into categories, a female staff explained. People are tempted to perceive the homeless as either "the crazies," or "the druggies," but they need to realize that these are real people with complex lives. It was expressed that many veterans have fallen into substance abuse and then homelessness in response to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), a condition that can become mentally crippling for those who don't get help. 

One gave a violent account. While on the military base, he had spied a Vietnamese man on the other side of the wire fence. He started shooting the man with his a semi-automatic weapon. The man was close enough, and he was aiming well enough that he filled him with his whole magazine of ammunition. But he didn't stop there, he proceeded to load another magazine and shoot the man until he had used all his rounds.  He said that for years he had devastating nightmares in which the same scene played itself out with a twist: that he was the victim.

Another veteran maintained that while trauma can obviously be triggered by violent war experiences, a person could have PTSD due to other types of emotionally difficult experiences. The film's narrator brought up the juxtaposition in which Vietnam veterans found themselves after the war: former soldiers among the antiwar public. The veterans' comments echoed the same. 

"Most of the Vietnam veterans weren't accepted when they came home," One man indicated. "You know, we didn't fight in a popular war."

Another expressed that it was traumatizing to believe he had been doing what he was supposed to be doing, and then to come home and be hated for it. He remarked that society blamed the soldiers instead of the politicians for the war. 

A third said: "I had college teachers [who] said, 'if you're a Vietnam veteran, don't expect to pass my class.'"

The man who had told the story about the shooting at the fence said that for 20-something years, he didn't indicate his Vietnam war participation on job applications, because he was afraid of discrimination, and embarrassed. He added that for him life's downward spiral began due to the lack of decompression time following the war. “On Tuesday, I was killing people,” he explained, “and on Friday, there I was at home with my parents” (paraphrase).

A little was revealed by the interviewees about the philosophies of homelessness:
One expressed that being homeless was like leaving things in God's hands: "If [God] takes care of the birds and the animals, you know He's gonna take care of you. . . sometimes when we help ourselves [we mess things up]."

Another said this: “When I was homeless, it was like with $40 and the choice between staying in a motel, or buying booze and smokes, I'd go for the booze and smokes” (paraphrase).

Other veterans in very few words indicated that depression and a loss of hope were the causes for homelessness.

A significant theme in the film was trust. The HVF staff explained that it takes time to gain the trust of homeless veterans. Their morning doughnut tradition helps. Anyone can walk in off the street to have free doughnuts, coffee, and to meet the staff. Perhaps homeless veterans’ distrust for society comes from society’s distrust for them. One veteran put it this way, "homeless, vets--can't trust 'em. And believe it or not, some people won't employ them."

The film ended with a follow-up blurb on each of the veterans interviewed. A few have continued to improve their lives (living in their own homes, working steady jobs), others have relapsed, and disappeared. This statement from the film echoed in my ears, “We praise the people who win, and the losers get lost in obscurity."

When the lights came back on, four speakers came forward to give more information about HVF, the VA, and the film. The panel included filmmaker Isaac Goekeritz, HVF clinical therapist Bobi Pace, social worker Lance Fromm (Dept. of Veterans Affairs- Homeless Program), and HVF substance abuse counselor Clint Jolley (former HVF resident). They were seated on the hardwood stage below the film screen, each with a table mike and name card placed before them. A KUED Channel 7 representative mediated the discussion from the podium stage left. 

Bobi indicated that the film does a good job of showing that homelessness is complex--that each person is an individual. She added that understanding takes work, “it involves changing your self-image . . . and your image of the world.”

Lance explained that the VA has really worked hard to gain the trust of homeless veterans. He added that they do outreach at prisons and jails, and make a great effort to actually count and keep track of the number of homeless veterans in Utah.

Clint said that he had been one of the veterans in the film. I squinted and stared, but I couldn’t figure out which interviewee he had been. He remarked that his life and appearance had changed greatly since the footage was taken. With a smile, he added, “I had no idea I looked like that.”

They took questions from the audience. A lady on the 4th row spoke up. She had medium-dark skin, long dark hair in a ponytail, and was in her late 20s or early 30s. She asked demandingly, “How many programs do you have for women?” The veterans interviewed in the film had all been men. Lance returned the question to her: “Why don’t you tell us about your experience with the VA?” She explained that she had served in Iraq, and had received services with the VA. Lance added that there were a few VA programs specifically aimed at helping female veterans. It seemed to me that her question had been part facetious, part sincere. While she seemed to have a friendly acquaintanceship with Lance, (enough for teasing) she also seemed dissatisfied with something she was unable to clearly express. 

From the 3rd row, a white man with short grey hair and a beard raised a question with a disgruntled voice. “What programs do you have,” he asked, almost jealously, “for veterans who actually have homes?” He referred then to Lance’s outreach programs, the concern for helping veterans whose suffering is obvious. What about the veterans whose suffering is not so obvious? was what he seemed to be saying. 

I posed a question as well. I told the panel that I had known a man in Los Angeles, a homeless veteran. He had told me that regardless of his military service, “the VA hospital kicked [him] out” due to his alcoholism. I wanted to know how strict HVF and other Utah VA facilities were about their drug and alcohol-free policies. Bobi and Lance offered this response: Although there may be some “wet” programs out there, most VA clinics  for the homeless (including the Ogden HVF) are “dry.” It’s this characteristic that really makes VA clinics different from regular homeless shelters. While homeless shelters prohibit the use of alcohol and drugs on site, they have no particular interest in monitoring what the residents do off-site. For most residential VA centers, the focus on substance abuse rehabilitation is part of the program package. Bobi added that although the Ogden HVF is a “zero tolerance” treatment center, they understand that people will relapse. However, they expect their client/residents to make an effort to recover sobriety. 

I thought it sounded like a reasonable policy. But I kept thinking about my homeless acquaintance in L.A., wondering why he didn’t just go back to the VA hospital and give sobriety a chance, wondering why he didn’t just go to a regular homeless shelter, or get a job for Pete’s sake!  But then I realized the futility of my thoughts. The homeless are people who by wariness or by weakness don’t conform to society’s institutional expectations. No matter how many homeless shelters are created, there will always be individuals who prefer to sleep under the freeway overpasses. No matter how forgiving and promising drug treatment centers are, there will always be individuals who refuse to try. For such a demographic, “What programs do you have for people like this?” may be an inadequate question to begin with.

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