The stories over the past week about military veterans living on the streets do not surprise
me but these stories sadden and anger me. It is something we could have predicted
years ago. The fact that these stories highlight issues around substance abuse
and mental health problems stemming from military service and transitional shock
should also come as a surprise to no one. But various spokespersons seem to be
The issues among homeless veterans are related to military identity and stove-piped mental health services within the military and in the civilian world, they are
related to the policy of universality of service, and they are related to an outdated
understanding and response to substance abuse. Substance abuse continues to be
understood as a combination of behavioural/personality problems, childhood abuse, or
sometimes as a result of operational stress injuries. Even here, under the present
organization of federal health services divorced from the operational end of
the system, there are only so many things that can be offered to serving personnel
before recommendations are made for medical release. These men and women
then become someone else’s problem.
“For a moment, envision something similar to a large interpersonal GPS where every military member knows precisely
where they are located—by service element, unit, trade, past deployments, rank, section, specific duties, unit NCOs and
buddies. Where one fits, specific job duties, who they are accountable to, who matters and who does not are all known.
There is a predictability to life based in a complex web of experiences and relationships that defines one’s military identity
and personal expectations. Military members are first and foremost identified by these things, and when these are lost or
taken away, there are no replacements to be found for many.” [Excerpt from Going Crazy ...]
Next, come the battles with veterans affairs to convince bureaucrats and quasi-judicial
bodies that struggles are service-related. Even when veteran issues are deemed
to be service-related and despite the efforts of individual case managers, as a benefits
oriented organization, VAC as it is presently constructed, can offer only limited support
to veterans beyond financial compensation. There are no places for veterans and their
families to go through a process of transitioning (a terribly misleading term by the way) to
civilian life. Family strains, disorientation and re-adjustment anxiety, economic
disruptions, and lingering mental distress become someone else’s problem to manage.
Various advocacy groups and community organizations (usually comprised of ex-military people) have stepped into the fray to highlight and to help solve some of the
issues but they are on their own. Federal bureaucracies seem perplexed so they
will want more studies.
So, I am sad and angry this week and I know other people who are upset by the stories.
I hope you will do something constructive about your reactions.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.