Johnny comes homeless

Peter Mohan traces the path from the Iraqi battlefield to this lifeless conference room, where he sits in a kilt and a Camp Kill Yourself T-shirt and calmly describes how he became a sad cliche: a homeless veteran.

There was a happy homecoming, but then an accident — car crash, broken collarbone. And then a move east, close to his wife’s new job but away from his best friends.

And then self-destruction: He would gun his motorcycle to 100 mph and try to stand on the seat. He would wait for his wife to leave in the morning, draw the blinds and open up whatever bottle of booze was closest.

He would pull out his gun, a .45-caliber, semiautomatic pistol. He would lovingly clean it, or just look at it and put it away. Sometimes place it in his mouth.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” his wife, Anna, told him one day. “You can’t be here anymore.”

Peter Mohan never did find a steady job after he left Iraq. He lost his wife — a judge granted their divorce this fall — and he lost his friends and he lost his home, and now he is here, in a shelter.

He is 28 years old. “People come back from war different,” he offers by way of a summary.

This is not a new story in America: A young veteran back from war whose struggle to rejoin society has failed, at least for the moment, fighting demons and left homeless.

But it is happening to a new generation. As the war in Afghanistan plods on in its seventh year, and the war in Iraq in its fifth, a new cadre of homeless veterans is taking shape.

And with it come the questions: How is it that a nation that became so familiar with the archetypal homeless, combat-addled Vietnam veteran is now watching as more homeless veterans turn up from new wars?

What lessons have we not learned? Who is failing these people? Or is homelessness an unavoidable byproduct of war, of young men and women who devote themselves to serving their country and then see things no man or woman should?


For as long as the United States has sent its young men — and later its young women — off to war, it has watched as a segment of them come home and lose the battle with their own memories, their own scars, and wind up without homes.

The Civil War produced thousands of wandering veterans. Frequently addicted to morphine, they were known as “tramps,” searching for jobs and, in many cases, literally still tending their wounds.

More than a decade after the end of World War I, the “Bonus Army” descended on Washington — demanding immediate payment on benefits that had been promised to them, but payable years later — and were routed by the U.S. military.

And, most publicly and perhaps most painfully, there was Vietnam: Tens of thousands of war-weary veterans, infamously rejected or forgotten by many of their own fellow citizens.

Now it is happening again, in small but growing numbers.

For now, about 1,500 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been identified by the Department of Veterans Affairs. About 400 of them have taken part in VA programs designed to target homelessness.

The 1,500 are a small, young segment of an estimated 336,000 veterans in the United States who were homeless at some point in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Still, advocates for homeless veterans use words like “surge” and “onslaught” and even “tsunami” to describe what could happen in the coming years, as both wars continue and thousands of veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress.

People who have studied postwar trauma say there is always a lengthy gap between coming home — the time of parades and backslaps and “The Boys Are Back in Town” on the local FM station — and the moments of utter darkness that leave some of them homeless.

In that time, usually a period of years, some veterans focus on the horrors they saw on the battlefield, or the friends they lost, or why on earth they themselves deserved to come home at all. They self-medicate, develop addictions, spiral down.

How — or perhaps the better question is why — is this happening again?

“I really wish I could answer that question,” says Anthony Belcher, an outreach supervisor at New Directions, which conducts monthly sweeps of Skid Row in Los Angeles, identifying homeless veterans and trying to help them get over addictions.

“It’s the same question I’ve been asking myself and everyone around me. I’m like, wait, wait, hold it, we did this before. I don’t know how our society can allow this to happen again.”


Mental illness, financial troubles and difficulty in finding affordable housing are generally accepted as the three primary causes of homelessness among veterans, and in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the first has raised particular concern.

Iraq veterans are less likely to have substance abuse problems but more likely to suffer mental illness, particularly post-traumatic stress, according to the Veterans Administration. And that stress by itself can trigger substance abuse.

Some advocates say there are also some factors particular to the Iraq war, like multiple deployments and the proliferation of improvised explosive devices, that could be pulling an early trigger on stress disorders that can lead to homelessness.

While many Vietnam veterans began showing manifestations of stress disorders roughly 10 years after returning from the front, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have shown the signs much earlier.

That could also be because stress disorders are much better understood now than they were a generation ago, advocates say.

“There’s something about going back, and a third and a fourth time, that really aggravates that level of stress,” said Michael Blecker, executive director of Swords to Plowshares,” a San Francisco homeless-vet outreach program.

“And being in a situation where you have these IEDs, everywhere’s a combat zone. There’s no really safe zone there. I think that all is just a stew for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Others point to something more difficult to define, something about American culture that — while celebrating and honoring troops in a very real way upon their homecoming — ultimately forgets them.

This is not necessarily due to deliberate negligence. Perhaps because of the lingering memory of Vietnam, when troops returned from an unpopular war to face open hostility, many Americans have taken care to express support for the troops even as they solidly disapprove of the war in Iraq.

But it remains easy for veterans home from Iraq for several years, and teetering on the edge of losing a job or home, to slip into the shadows. And as their troubles mount, they often feel increasingly alienated from friends and family members.

“War changes people,” says John Driscoll, vice president for operations and programs at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “Your trust in people is strained. You’ve been separated from loved ones and friends. The camaraderie between troops is very extreme, and now you feel vulnerable.”

The VA spends about $265 million annually on programs targeting homeless veterans. And as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face problems, the VA will not simply “wait for 10 years until they show up,” Pete Dougherty, the VA’s director of homeless programs, said when the new figures were released.

“We’re out there now trying to get everybody we can to get those kinds of services today, so we avoid this kind of problem in the future,” he said.


These are all problems defined in broad strokes, but they cascade in very real and acute ways in the lives of individual veterans.

Take Mike Lally. He thinks back now to the long stretches in the stifling Iraq heat, nothing to do but play Spades and count flies, and about the day insurgents killed the friendly shop owner who sold his battalion Pringles and candy bars.

He thinks about crouching in the back of a Humvee watching bullets crash into fuel tanks during his first firefight, and about waiting back at base for the vodka his mother sent him, dyed blue and concealed in bottles of Scope mouthwash.

It was a little maddening, he supposes, every piece of it, but Lally is fairly sure that what finally cracked him was the bodies. Unloading the dead from ambulances and loading them onto helicopters. That was his job.

“I guess I loaded at least 20,” he says. “Always a couple at a time. And you knew who it was. You always knew who it was.”

It was in 2004, when he came back from his second tour in Iraq with the Marine Corps, that his own bumpy ride down began.

He would wake up at night, sweating and screaming, and during the days he imagined people in the shadows — a state the professionals call hypervigilence and Mike Lally calls “being on high alert, all the time.”

His father-in-law tossed him a job installing vinyl siding, but the stress overcame him, and Lally began to drink. A little rum in his morning coffee at first, and before he knew it he was drunk on the job, and then had no job at all.

And now Mike Lally, still only 26 years old, is here, booted out of his house by his wife, padding around in an old T-shirt and sweats at a Leeds shelter called Soldier On, trying to get sober and perhaps, on a day he can envision but not yet grasp, get his home and family and life back.

“I was trying to live every day in a fog,” he says, reflecting between spits of tobacco juice. “I’d think I was back in there, see people popping out of windows. Any loud noise would set me off. It still does.”


Soldier On is staffed entirely by homeless veterans. A handful who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, usually six or seven at a time, mix with dozens from Vietnam. Its president, Jack Downing, has spent nearly four decades working with addicts, the homeless and the mentally ill.

Next spring, he plans to open a limited-equity cooperative in the western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield. Formerly homeless veterans will live there, with half their rents going into individual deposit accounts.

Downing is convinced that ushering homeless veterans back into homeownership is the best way out of the pattern of homelessness that has repeated itself in an endless loop, war after war.

“It’s a disgrace,” Downing says. “You have served your country, you get damaged, and you come back and we don’t take care of you. And we make you prove that you need our services.”

“And how do you prove it?” he continues, voice rising in anger. “You prove it by regularly failing until you end up in a system where you’re identified as a person in crisis. That has shocked me.”

Even as the nation gains a much better understanding of the types of post-traumatic stress disorders suffered by so many thousands of veterans — even as it learns the lessons of Vietnam and tries to learn the lessons of Iraq — it is probably impossible to foretell a day when young American men and women come home from wars unscarred.

At least as long as there are wars.

But Driscoll, at least, sees an opportunity to do much better.

He notes that the VA now has more than 200 veteran adjustment centers to help ease the transition back into society, and the existence of more than 900 VA-connected community clinics nationwide.

“We’re hopeful that five years down the road, you’re not going to see the same problems you saw after the Vietnam War,” he says. “If we as a nation do the right thing by these guys.”


  1. Cosmic Surfer

    WE live in the “richest” country in the world (actually we just pretend to be the richest as China and the House of Saud hold us by what’s left of our cajones)and we cannot take care of those children that are sent off to spill their blood for us? IT IS WORSE than appalling!
    I watched cousins and friends die a soulless death after the Nam and I am watching sons and daughters come back even MORE tormented and with larger holes in their being with bigger demons to fight in their days and terrors in their dreams…
    God help those who we have left in HELL and may the Universe forever curse those who started this hell on Earth and have chosen to treat these beautiful souls like cannon fodder and expendible collaterol….
    Every one of us owes these veterans our life for having given them up for this war and every one of us owes them a debt that will never be repayed but we MUST fight for them if it takes every ounce of our being.

  2. AustinRanter

    Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 B.C

    “Before Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated, he left some words of wisdom that might be something we should all think about.”

    “Beware of the leader who strikes the war drum in order to transfer the citizens into patriotic glow. Patriotism is indeed a double-sided sword. It makes the blood so boldly like it constricts the intellect. And if the striking of the war drum reached a fiebrige height and the blood is cooking and hating, and the intellect is dismissed, the leader doesn’t need to reject the citizen’s rights. The citizens, caught by anxiety and blinded through patriotism, will subordinate all their rights to the leader and this even with happy courage. Why do I know that? I know it, because this is what I did. I am Gaius Julius Caesar.”

  3. CheckerboardStrangler

    265 million a year is shameful, but I don’t blame Pete Dougherty for it. Nope, I lay the blame directly on both BushCo and our Congress critters, both of whom love to play footsie with the VA budget, which IS SUPPOSED TO BE SACRED, and for a damn good reason.

    The day I see a billion or more devoted solely to homeless veteran outreach services is the day I will stop “hating on Bush”, but I know he will just run out the clock, take the keys and leave The Club attached to the steering wheels on both the White House Limo and the American ship of state with regard to our veterans.

    In the meantime, people like Dougherty and Downing will continue to try to do the near impossible with nearly nothing, the veterans will be stacked up like cordwood in our crumbling homeless shelters, and once again society will turn rabid on them, labeling them as “unwilling to take the help given to them”.
    The swiftboating of our new crop of homeless vets will commence sooner than you think.
    In fact it may have already begun.

  4. Carl Nemo

    America’s leaders have always waxed poetically about our veterans especially on Veterans and Memorial Day, but where the rubber meets the road with funding and genuine care they are a bunch of spineless, give-a-care sob’s!

    Many if not most have never served in our armed forces. You’ll find the rethuglican party loaded with “chickenhawks” for sure. Names aren’t important, but I can assure you their numbers are legion at our highest levels of government. They talk the talk, but have never walked the walk! Interestingly the Democratic leaders come up far better when it comes to service to their country; ie., in shear numbers and actually having served in action. Note: This aforementioned commentary is not an edorsement for dems.

    Many of these guys are being stiffed or strung out for very necessary PTSD counseling. My dad who passed Veterans Day 07, an infantryman from both WWII and Korea was a mess. There was no counseling in those days because PTSD wasn’t seriously catalogued. They called his problem psycho-neurosis; ie., an ever-hardening of thoughts. His last command was running POW compound and evidently he phase-locked to that last experience and ran our household like a POW camp… :( We all turned out well, but it was very tough being raised by damaged goods courtesy of endless wars.

    I hope Patty Murray one of my Washington State senators who chairs VA related issues is reading this and makes it a point to solve this growing national “crime” against our vets. I urge people to contact their reps about this grave issue. Bushco has money to waste in Iraq and other areas of their ongoing foreign adventurism, but not for our vets whose lives are on the line.

    The duty links…

    A link to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s rendition of this Civil War era song… 😐

    Carl Nemo **==

  5. bryan mcclellan

    After I came home nearly four decades ago from the RVN I learned quickly to hide my past.As soon as people learned you were a Viet Vet they looked at you differently and many verbalized their feelings in very unkind terms,such as baby killer and spitting vile curses like whacko Viet vet. They were right on one point,I was whacko,still am, freaked by sudden loud noises,hyper alert as the author stated,and scared to death if I encounter something strange in the road while driving,fearful of running over another land mine.My heart is racing and my hands shake as I conjure the old demons and try to expunge the guilt I’ve felt lo these many years.Guilt I cannot explain,possibly it’s having no fear of death and at times feeling that it would be a welcome respite from having to cope with life even when it is good.A fatalistic approach as it were to get me through the day.These feelings are never far from the surface for any who has experienced combat and life or death situations.Our soldiers coming home today are just waking up to the sad fact that talk is cheap and the government they sacrificed so much for is even cheaper.The ribbons and patriotic noise are no substitute for lost youth and innocence.It’s hard not to feel we are owed something but I’ll be dammed if I could tell you what it is.What I can tell you we don’t need, are posturing chicken hawk politicos fawning over us and then sweeping the rug out from under with false promises and the playing of charades with our foreign policy.The “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” rule does not apply in our case.Bandaid solutions for gaping wounds that are unseen but clearly felt in the psychic realm are an insult to our returning Vets. Many will continue to come home with deep seated questions as to their place in the scheme of things,ever wondering,wishing that somehow an answer could be found,a clue to resolve the riddle of their continued existence in a country that by and large has turned their back. The majority won’t take a handout,but a hand up is welcome,after all it’s about simple human dignity,isn’t it?

  6. ekaton

    What is different about this war? Nothing. Its still the same ultimate obscenity it has always been. Nothing new here. Old men who have never been to war send children to kill other children for no good cause. Preemptive war. Oxymorn of the century. Nothing to see here folks. Same old. Same old Move along now. Go to the mall. Its all good.

    — Kent Shaw

  7. ekaton

    When and how are we going to get this government to stop all of this constant and unnecessary military conflict? It is destroying us as a people, mentally and pysically, and it is bankrupting us. Either end this constant horror or just end the damn country. Bring on the end. I’m tired of waiting for it in fear. Bring it. End it. The rest of the world will breathe a well deserved sigh of relief. 700 bases in 130 countries. END THIS !!

    — Kent Shaw

  8. Carl Nemo

    Hi Kent Shaw…

    You, myself and no doubt millions of other Americans are immensely frustrated by this feeling of captivity on the part of our leaders and our seemingly out of control military machine.

    It’s possibly too late to turn this deadly juggernaut around because of the unholy alliance of the bankers, the MIC, and our compromised Congress, now seemingly nothing but an American version of the former Soviet politburo.

    We have now moved into an Orwellian era of endless, meaningless wars. The war on terror is an endless war since it’s a faceless war against worldwide malcontents. There’s no one to parley, nor to call a truce so it will go on and on until the very nations waging this exploitive war against the wealth of it’s citizenry fails due to national bankruptcy. Since the U.S. is the main proponent of this push and the fact we now owe 9,700 billion, (9.7 trillion), truly an astronomical, unpayable debt, it seems this train isn’t stopping until it crashes…!

    Three of this nation’s truly great presidents; ie., men that cared about the Republic and the welfare of it’s people had this to say about the future. It obviously fell upon deaf, listless ears…

    “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” … Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865


    ” A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction…

    This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

    In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

    We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
    …Dwight D. Eisenhower


    “If the American people ever allow the banks to control issuance of their currency, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers occupied.” …Thomas Jefferson

    A link concerning the origins and the history of the military industrial complex that many of us so often reference.

    Carl Nemo **==

  9. ekaton

    I just can’t take it anymore. They just keep coming at us. It never stops. And its all so wrong. It is simple greed and lust for power taken to the nth degree. Our government is not “protecting our freedom”. It is taking our freedom and under the THIN guise of “spreading democracy” simply spreading hate and discontent and stealing other peoples’ resources. Sometimes I feel I’m just ready to snap. But, yeah, thanks for the comments, Carl.

    — Kent Shaw

  10. Carl Nemo

    Hi Kent Shaw…

    Hang in there good buddy we’re all in this together! Remember these words. “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”…Matthew 20:16

    Never, never, never quit…Winston Churchill…!

    Your friend in both thought and action…

    Carl Nemo **==