There is a simple seven-word line in the Soldier’s Creed that always strikes a chord in my heart whenever I hear it uttered: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
It’s both a task and a promise, and it’s something that soldiers, and all members of our armed forces, take very seriously. Many men and women have risked their lives, and some have died, living up to those words.
But what about our brothers and sisters in arms who have fallen on another type of battlefield, far from the sounds of rifles and mortars but still within an environment that can certainly take their lives, if not already their health, well-being and dignity?
This week, only hours after Veterans Day parades have wound their way through our nation’s cities, and after the speeches and patriotic slogans have faded from our minds, nearly 50,000 veterans will be sleeping in the streets, in their cars, or in homeless shelters. Prior year estimates have shown that there were more than 500 homeless veterans in Alabama alone.
This is a great shame, and an indelible stain on our nation’s honor.
We’ve heard about the problem before, of course. I remember as a little boy listening to stories on the evening news about homeless Vietnam veterans sleeping in the park across from the White House. The fact that a former soldier was homeless saddened me when I was a kid, and it burns me up now that I’m an adult.
Many folks feel the same way, but I know there are others who look at homeless veterans and assume that they’ve brought on their own problems: they became addicted to drugs and alcohol, some may think, and simply refused to straighten up. Others may believe that in this age of a massive welfare state, veterans must be homeless by some sort of inexplicable choice, and that if they really wanted help they could easily get it from a variety of government and private sources.
Part of that might be true for some homeless veterans, but might not be true for others. I’m not hero-worshipping here. I know some of them are no angels and some may indeed be partly to blame for their condition … but so what?
Before raising their right hands and agreeing to protect our nation, did these veterans first ask if the people they might die to protect were worthy of such a sacrifice? No, they didn’t. They signed-up to fight, and if need be, die, to protect the freedoms of every American, whether those they fought for were decent folks or not, and to protect the interests of the United States, whether those interests were sensible or not.
Besides, many homeless veterans are battling serious obstacles that would knock most people flat. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, “a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.”
It may seem impossible with the amount of tax dollars thrown at this problem, but at-risk veterans can, and do, slip between the cracks. Big government, even when armed with the noblest of intent, is still a clumsy, inefficient and impersonal mess.
So what’s to be done? Some experts say that while the Department of Veterans Affairs certainly has the resources, the best way to tackle the problem is through local groups that are operated by fellow veterans.
“The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit, ‘veterans helping veterans’ groups,” according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves.”
So contact your mayor’s office and ask what groups are active in your community. Call them today and pledge your time or your money, or both.
These homeless veterans stuck their necks out for their country and didn’t ask for much in return. Offering them a helping hand is the least we can do, because we should never leave a fallen comrade, regardless of the battlefield.