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Veteran crisis: Newest war vets become homeless at alarming rate

EAGLE MOUNTAIN — The house that Jordan Sanford now calls home sits on a barren hilltop near Eagle Mountain, in a secluded, partially developed subdivision. Inside, there are tall ceilings and polished wood floors, and the natural light pours in from the windows. It's a big improvement from the tent Sanford called home two years ago while deployed in Iraq.

As comfortable as Sanford, 22, feels in his new home, it isn't his--he shares it with up to eight other war veterans. Otherwise known as the Ark of Eagle Mountain, it is a transitional facility for soldiers who have come home from war only to find themselves without a place to live.

In Utah, Sanford is one of 350 homeless veterans. Nationally, 110,000 former servicement and women don't have permanent housing. While most served in Vietnam, a growing population (an estimated 9,000 former soldiers) are from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This class of veterans faces a new set of problems unseen in previous wars. Due to roadside bombs, concussions and head trauma are more common than in previous wars, and often go unseen and unnoticed. Where veterans once came home with visible injuries such as missing limbs, many of today's soldiers, who often must endure multiple deployments, are coming home with invisible scars that can wreak severe psychological havoc.

As a result, many veterans like Sanford are finding themselves homeless faster than any of their predecessors, on average around 18 months after returning from war. "We are finding that veterans from this era are entering homelessness at younger ages than other eras, the average age being 33," said Al Hernandez, manager of the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program at the VA in Salt Lake City. "At our clinic, we are seeing less of a problem with substance abuse among homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but more post-traumatic stress disorder compared to other eras. We see that these veterans are dealing with more serious psychiatric problems."

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries are also more prevalent among Iraq and Afghanistan vets, leading to drug abuse, mental illness and suicide. Last week, the Army announced that Army National Guardsmen are killing themselves at higher rates than ever before, with over 300 active-duty and reserve soliders committing suicide in 2010.

And the problem isn't confined to men. Female veterans are becoming homeless faster than their male counterparts due to family breakups caused by the long absences required for soldiers on active-duty, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Women make up 21 percent of the homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

"America trains its servicemembers to be good soldiers, but they are not trained to know how to turn that switch off," said Maria Fruin, program manager of the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom Program at the George E Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake.

In her opinion, the biggest problem today's veterans face is that the transition between life as a soldier and life a civilian is more abrupt than it has been before.

"There is no decompression phase. These soldiers go from combat to couch surfing. It's like one day they've got a rifle in their hands, and the next day a remote control."

While Sanford was lucky enough to come home without any brain injuries, he suffers from PTSD and depression related to his service in Iraq. He says he struggled to adjust to a life without structure, because he thrived in the rigidity of soldier-life. While stationed in Iraq, Sanford was a guard at a prison called Camp Bucca, where he watched over Iraqi detainees day-in and day-out.

"Have you seen the movie Groundhog Day?" he said. "I woke up and did the same thing over and over every day." Though he never saw direct combat, from time-to-time rocket bombs called mortars would hit the base and explode. He said it was difficult to live with the realization that a mortar could strike near him at any second and end his life. He was also disturbed by the inhumane treatment that the detainees received at the hands of the military, but didn't realize how affected he was until he got home.

"At first when someone would ask me about my deployment, I would ice over it. But it turns out there were some things that weighed heavily on me. I felt like I was asked to take away people's humanity."

When Sanford got home from Iraq in 2008, he got a job as a data processor, but quit after a month because it bored him. After blowing his savings on a car, rent, and a girlfriend he was broke. Sanford then moved in with his mom and brother, but by that point he was depressed. He started smoking pot and drinking. He felt like he had become a burden to his mother and moved out.

"At that point I was angry at myself," said Sanford. "I had been doing so good. I graduated from high school, joined the army, and felt like I was doing something with my life. When I realized I had no place to go I was startled. I'm embarrassed to say that I felt I either had to end my life or change my life. So I decided to change my life by seeking help from the VA."

A few weeks after Sanford got home, he was diagnosed with PTSD by a therapist from the VA. After that appointment, Jordan did not seek any type of assistance from the VA until he found himself homeless.

"Asking for help was the last thing on my mind because I was embarrassed that I couldn't keep my life together by myself.".

Sanford's reluctance to seek help from the VA is illustrative of a growing problem among veterans with depression and PTSD. The VA recognizes that many soldiers feel there is a stigma to receiving therapy or treatment, which is why the VA is working to reduce that stigma, and let soldiers know it's OK to ask for help.

Through the VA, Sanford found housing at the Ark of Eagle Mountain, which is specifically designaged for veterans struggling with substance abuse, depression and anxiety. About 40 percent of the veterans who have lived at the facility served in Iraq or Afghanistan, says Paula Bruce, a substance abuse counselor and the program director of the Ark of Eagle Mountain. Bruce and her co-counselors help the soldiers overcome addictions and manage depression and anxiety, as well as help them find permanent housing and employment. Bruce says she knows there are more veterans like Sanford who the VA never sees because they won't reach out for help.

Sanford empathizes with the men and women he served with who might be in a similar situation.

"Everyone is so strong and confident when they get deployed," he said. "It makes me sad to see how many get so affected by their deployment, and how so many people just get worn down when they get home."

Paul Riekhoff, Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans in America, finds the situation of homeless Iraq/Afghanistan veterans to be very discouraging. "I think even if there's one homeless veteran, it should be a national outrage. I mean, a day when it's twenty degrees outside and the idea that some man or woman who got home from Iraq or Afghanistan maybe just a couple of months ago are homeless, that should outrage everybody in America."

Sanford said that going to the VA was the best thing he could have done. "I went in on a Thursday and was here in Eagle Mountain by Tuesday. I have never been frustrated or upset by the service I received at the VA."

Sanford has already been there for two months, but says he feels like a completely different person than he was before he got there.

"I'm not depressed every day." Sanford said, "I'm starting to believe in things again and have a little faith. I feel like there's hope for the future."