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Monday, May 28, 2012

Veterans' Worst Problem - The loss of the One

On Being a Part of One: Memorial Day 2012

I have an idea for helping veterans that I feel, as a veteran, would benefit many of those returning from our multiple wars, those who have already returned, and those who will do so in the future. It's my considered opinion that the problem so many who seek to understand the issue overlook is that returning vets are no longer surrounded by people who have the same sort of experiences. Returning injured veterans miss the companionship of their sisters- and brothers-in-arms. What they lack, what they need, what they want, we can give them for probably no more, or at least very little more, than we currently spend. So what's the solution? Veterans' Villages. Allow me to explain.

From the moment you enter initial reception in the military, you become part of a greater One. Your One might be the US Army, the US Navy, the US Coast Guard, the US Air Force, or the USMC. It doesn't matter which One you belong to, what matters is that you are there to become an integral part of One. That One will stay with you from the first frightening days where nothing is familiar and people with funny hats scream at you and make you do pushups. Your personal One might make you swab decks, eat sand, pretend to fly, crawl through mud, or any silly thing one can imagine that 99% of the population wouldn't do. But what your One is really doing is to mold you into a functioning, capable, highly-skilled Warfighter, a part of One.

You'll always want to be part of One, but when you leave your service, your One has to focus on the new players in order to create your replacement, so you feel left out in the cold. Your One has abandoned you, in your way of thinking, and you feel bereft of your One's special attention.

For those Warfighters who return broken, physically, mentally, or emotionally, their One has to keep its sights on the enemy and sometimes forgets to shine its warm, beatific smile in your direction. Sure, you have "family" - those people who brought you into the world, who reared you, fed you, clothed you, educated you, and either supported or didn't your decision to leave them in order to serve your nation and become part of One. But your FAMILY is still Over There, some working hard to purchase the freedom that everyone who lives in the free world enjoys. The same freedom that you purchased with your blood, your sweat, your fear, and your nightmares. When you were sent back to the States, you left the only real FAMILY you've ever felt truly, really, wholly connected to. This in no way diminishes your love for your "family", and they often have trouble understanding this because they haven't been Over There with their FAMILY, facing death, dismemberment, pain, worry, fatigue, scorching heat, biting cold, bitter drink and insipid food. You try to tell them, but they Just Don't Get It, and they never will. Inside, deep inside, you know this, too. Your One deserted you. Your One turned its back on you. You feel the anguish and sorrow for those you LOVE who are still Over There. You miss them, and NOT A DAMNED SOUL at "home" understands why you want to leave your "family" and "home" and go HOME to your FAMILY. More importantly, you can't talk to anyone about it because you spent Eternity Over There with it bottled up, maybe letting out a bit to your battle buddy, but never being able to spill it out because that's a sign of cowardice and you'll damned sure walk out in front of a speeding vehicle rather than let your friends see it. Because that's the ultimate act of cowardice, in your way of thinking - showing the fear that you all have in front of your FAMILY.

You're "home". You're scared, not for yourself, but for both your "family" and your FAMILY. You're afraid someone in your "family" will set you off or see you confronting the demons that are issued to everyone returning from Over There as a Thank-You gift from your Grateful Nation. You're afraid you'll hurt someone at "home". You're afraid that the new guy Over There just doesn't know how to Do It Right and someone will get hurt; someone whom you love and have been through the gates of Hell with. Because that person is your touchstone, your One.

Veterans' Villages

The missing link is togetherness, as in "live togetherness", just as you did when you were part of your One. I got ya. I read you five-by. I think I know just what you need, because I could damn sure use a little bit of it myself. We need a way to stay part of a One, maybe not the old One, but a new One, just like changing duty stations. Surrounded by people just like me. A new FAMILY, some of whom are almost certainly part of my old FAMILY.

I propose that our Grateful Nation set aside funds to purchase land. Perhaps generous land owners (spurred on by tax incentives) would donate some or part it. This land would be used to create Veterans' Villages, each with a different climate, some located in lush mountains, some in the plains, maybe a few near the beach. It doesn't have to be prime real estate. Hell, not many of the places we've been stationed are prime real estate. Give us a couple hundred acres. Let us help build it, even. Hey, we'll even stay in tents until we get our permanent homes built. The work and comradery will keep our minds and hands busy. We'll build new friendships and probably even have a few of the old ones right next to us. Most importantly, we'll get our One back.

We will build Veterans' Villages with a mix of multi-unit housing and Tiny Houses. The multi-unit housing will allow those who don't want the lawn and solidarity to live right among their friends. Each will have a day room and a TV room, just like back HOME, maybe a community kitchen, and every veteran will have her or his own small, studio apartment. Severely disabled veterans could all be given ground floor residences which might be built for wheelchairs and mobility-assistance clearances. Facilities maintenance would be done by veteran employees who live right there in the Village.

The Tiny Houses are another thing altogether. Small - 250-400sq ft -, tidy, inexpensive, each with a small tract of yard, just enough for a little garden and a flower bed. For those of us who need to get our hands dirty in the soil. Some of these Tiny Houses might be made from recycled steel shipping containers of the sort used aboard ships and then dropped onto the backs of tractor-trailers for deliveries before being loaded up and sent back. I've seen some fantastic living spaces made from them, and they're virtually storm-proof (maybe veteran proof, too!) I've also seen them made from old railroad boxcars. The point is, we veterans would be willing to be pioneers in the field of Tiny Houses and might be able to be the cutting-edge in it. First we learn from the Tiny House experts how to build them. Then we live in them. Then we teach others in communities all over the country where people seek to downsize. There are so many possibilities for veterans to give back, once again.

We will have community gardens, also. The soil under my nails is a powerful pain reliever and curative. The fruit of my labors - squash, tomatoes, peppers, herbs - feed me and taste twice as good as the best I've ever had before.

The VA could establish clinics in our Villages; clinics we will build ourselves. Talk about a captive audience for the VA medical corps for improved communication and monitoring of routine and preventive care... We could have community 'canteens' - cafeterias - staffed wholly by veterans where residents could get 3 nutritious meals a day at no or low cost. These meals might be paid for from the same source of funds currently used to provide low-income and homeless veterans with Food Stamps. I'm sure that the appropriate modifications to the program could be managed if the will is there.

We will have our own stores, maybe owned by the nearby community, but staffed by vets. We will have jobs, some right here in the Village, others in the nearby communities, but we should always be mindful to prevent taking local jobs from those who the Villages get sited near. MPs who live among us might be our Village cops, and former military cooks would work in and even run our eateries, if they chose to. With the broad spectrum of skills brought to the Village by veterans, the Village might become the best resource for local communities for technology needs, or perhaps just day labor. Some might even go on to own businesses in the Villages, a situation where they could move on and free up space for a new vet. Who better to understand what we're going through than those who already have experience in dealing with us and who are part of our new One?

We will have picnics, BBQs, outtings. And of course we'll have counsellors on hand, again perhaps those who have Been There, Done That and TRULY understand what we're going through. I don't trust Mr Former War Protester Turned Counsellor with my feelings, but I can trust Mr Former Grunt because he can SEE my demons...because they're his, too.

Our friends from "home" can come see us, see how we live, see our progress. Our goal is to move back to be with our "families", but we understand that if things get really bad, we're always welcome HOME to our FAMILY, here at the Vets' Village.

There will be rules, there always are. There will be counselling. There will be Smart Recovery, AA, NA, and any other appropriate group organization. But this won't be a group home where you're treated like a kid in detention. You'll be treated like an adult here, respected for what you've done for your Nation, Grateful or not.

Our One will be open to any of the 1% who have served. We will make every effort to pay our own way, perhaps through a higher payroll tax, perhaps through community services that we can render that aren't deemed profitable for businesses. Cleaning and restoring our Nation's National Parks, State Parks, building and restoring playgrounds for kids and critical infrastructure, all of the sorts of things that help US as well as helping the U.S., for we're still patriots, and we have proved it, but damned sure don't mind keeping at it!

We don't want a handout, but the country is throwing handfuls of cash at problems without results. This is a program that will help because it addresses our problems in holistic methods. You can't bandaid our problems, and our core problem is that we need our One. Kids from every background enter the military at an early age and in doing so, many miss the life lessons learned by those who have the advantage of stable home lives or the college experience. Those kids are now blooded adults and changing the patterns of their lives is difficult, or even impossible.

For our leaders, I ask you to have your staffs look at this issue carefully. Parse the fine print in the reports concerning vets too and you'll see that the overarching issue is addressed with this program. Have your staffs do the math. Take a look at the money we're throwing down the toilet, especially in this economic slump. Remember that building the Villages is a one-time expense and that we veterans can supply most - or perhaps all - of the necessary labor. Yes, there will be a need for planners, architects, and contractors, but those costs could be offset by offering tax incentives for pro bono services. For that matter, there's the Army Corps of Engineers and the Navy Seabees who might lend engineering expertise, possibly even heavy equipment.

And repeat this mantra until you BELIEVE it:  This is NOT a partisan issue!

Veterans already receive pensions for disabilities and some draw retirement pay. This money will provide many veterans with the income they need if they don't have to pay rent, or if their rent is subsidized by a Section 8 type program. Again, look at how much the VA already spends to get homeless vets off the streets. This is a much more permanent solution. While you're doing the math, make sure you include money spent on older or disabled veterans by the Federal government, state governments, and local governments for home modifications, energy assistance, food, and so forth. Count all of it. Don't short us - we didn't short you.

Yes, there will be a need for several of these across the country. I highly suggest to place them in locations that will promote serenity. The US has public lands all over the country that could be used for this, however I don't think that a location so remote as to be difficult to reach would be wise, either. Here are a few locations that come to mind for Villages, all within 1 hour or less of a major VAMC:
a) Clarks Hill Lake (J Strom Thurmond Lake) on the Georgia-South Carolina state line near Augusta, Georgia. (VAMC in Augusta)
b) Columbia River on the Oregon-Washington state line near Portland, Oregon. (VAMC in Portland)
c) Santa Fe River or Payne's Prairie near Gainesville, Florida. (VAMC in Gainesville)
d) Texas Hill Country near San Antonio, Texas. (VAMC in San Antonio)
Of course, there are many other locations within 1 hour of a VAMC, too.

There are military bases being closed under BRAC that might be perfect for this plan, already containing barracks that might be modified for use by veterans. We wouldn't even need the whole base, in most cases, just a few acres, buildings or no.

The primary advantages I see from this are these:
1) Permanent homes for those veterans at the greatest risk;
2) Transitional housing for other veterans to give them a 'decompression period' before returning to their "families";
3) A long-term solution to veterans' real problems by concentrating them in a single location easily reached by VA medical, therapeutic, and counselling staffs (perhaps a siting requirement might be to look for Village sites within, say, 30 minutes to 1 hour of a VAMC such that the VAMC doctors and staffs could make Village clinic visits to see their patients rather than having groups of veterans make the trip to the VAMC for routine care and checkups;
4) Having a community of highly trained, motivated, and skilled workers available for local businesses to draw from;
5) Having a community of highly trained, motivated, and skilled volunteers who would work to improve or build projects deemed unprofitable for local businesses to tackle, like parks and playgrounds, or which local government can't afford;
 6) Having a community of volunteers who could be used for civil emergencies like floods, fires, or storms, equipped by the appropriate local or regional agency.

I'm well aware how many veterans are currently serving and have served since the Gulf War. The intent of this program would not be to try to house every returning veteran in a Village. This program would be designed to reach out to those in greatest need - homeless veterans, those who wish to harm themselves, those who wish to harm others, or those whose substance abuse problems can't be rectified by a simple AA meeting. The Veterans' Village project might serve as a diversionary program in lieu of incarceration, either long- or short-term, and could include provisions such as checking in with Village police, wearing monitoring equipment, and/or public service as recompense, et cetera.

The whole point of the program is to help veterans of any age, conflict or peacetime, problem, issue, health concern, race, gender, or rank return to civilian life with the tools to lead a happy, productive life. Where that fails, to give them a HOME that they will never have to fear losing. Simply having that, a home, would assuage so much of the pain of loss that damaged veterans experience - loss of FAMILY, loss of "family", loss of "home", loss of HOME, loss of their best friends, many of whom they watched die before their eyes and which trauma is daily visited upon them by the demons who tell them that their friend's death is their fault.

If we want to FIX the problems that so many veterans have, it will take a national effort and a holistic approach. The VA can't do it alone, states aren't financially able to help, and the private sector hasn't fully recovered, but each can do what they can, and that will be enough to make this program work if our leaders have the same resolve that the veterans had which drove them through their service and through conflict, only to return home  to a 'Grateful Nation'.

This is a holistic approach to veterans' problems resulting in helping veterans rejoin their One. It's an approach which takes the burden of carrying so much of the financial cost of long-term veteran care off the backs off working Americans and puts it in the hands of veterans who want to pay their own way, as much as they can.

Alcoholics Anonymous has an apt saying that pertains to this: "Half measures availed us nothing".


Jim Chatman
Veteran - Georgia