Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON -- The next time you pass a homeless man on the street, you might ask in which war he served. In the next several years, chances are good that he (and increasingly she) will say Iraq or Afghanistan.

That grim prediction is based on several facts:

One in three adult homeless males is a veteran and 45 percent of those suffer from mental illness, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, meanwhile, found that one in four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were diagnosed with some kind of mental health problem.

And those are just the ones who found their way to a VA hospital. Many don't. Returning veterans are either embarrassed, untrusting of government, frustrated by bureaucratic gridlock, or simply incapable of navigating the system.

With large numbers of troops likely headed home in the next year, the U.S. faces a tsunami of psychologically and emotionally damaged veterans who have no place to go. Those who don't find the support they need may end up on the streets.

Or in prison. In 1998, an estimated 56,500 Vietnam War-era veterans and 18,500 Persian Gulf War vets were held in state and federal prisons, according to the 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, ``Veterans in Prison or Jail.''

Obviously, not all were model citizens who turned to crime because of their war experiences. One in six of incarcerated veterans was not honorably discharged from the military. But the report says veterans are more likely than others to be in prison for a violent offense.

Families of veterans aren't surprised. Men and women trained to survive in a war zone bring those same skills home and find themselves unable to function in an alien environment.

Readjustment symptoms include hyper-vigilance, insomnia, irritability, exaggerated startle response, withdrawal, isolation, depression and anger. An act-first-think-later approach to problem solving may keep one alive in combat, but it's not helpful to family harmony.

Cynde Collins-Clark -- none other than Oklahoma's 2006 Mother of the Year -- has experienced these problems firsthand. Her son, Joe, left for Iraq at 19 with the Army Reserve and returned a year later 100 percent mentally disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Unable to work, Joe lives at home with his mother, a licensed professional counselor, and his stepfather.


Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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