By Tori Lyon
Best Defense guest columnist
As our troops come back from Iraq, one measure of our integrity as a nation is how effectively we welcome them home. Beyond a chorus of respect from business, government and citizens for our troops, they are coming back to grim economic and social realities leaving them more likely to be unemployed and homeless than average Americans.
The vast irony is that many service members who heeded the call to action post 9/11 are suffering from the effects of an 11.7 percent unemployment rate, physical and mental injuries, and terrible difficulties reengaging in the social and familial rhythms of civilian life.
The result: a disproportionate number of homeless veterans between the ages of 18-30. A new study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Veterans Affairs noted that while young veterans make up only about 5 percent of the nation's veteran population, they constitute nearly 9 percent of all former service members who are homeless. This doesn't count those who "couch surf" with friends and family.
The problem will not abate as another 50,000 troops stream home from Iraq and Afghanistan over the next two years. How can we rise to the occasion to serve our veterans with the same honor and dignity that they have shown us?
Based on Jericho Project's 28-year experience in helping formerly homeless individuals transform their lives -- and our work in providing permanent supportive housing and comprehensive counseling to over 200 veterans -- we believe that today's young veterans do not have to experience the chronic homelessness that shamefully plagues those from the Vietnam era.
Instead, speedy and intensive support can steer our homeless and at-risk veterans through the challenges of transition and ensure that they do not settle into a permanent state of homelessness. To accomplish this, start with the stabilizing foundation of supportive housing within a community of veterans. Then, give veterans access to the expertise needed to successfully tackle complex issues such as substance abuse, mental health, and family isolation. And finally, provide real-world counseling to fast-track veterans to jobs, internships, and education where they can regain their confidence and get back on their feet.
Overall our young veterans are known for their discipline, leadership, and courage. While otherwise stressful, life in the military is also extremely structured. It provides housing, training, employment, and community. So when a serviceperson comes home it is an icy plunge into the relative chaos of finding affordable housing, attainable jobs, and even coping with the anxiety of a crowd or loud noise.
For those returning to troubled homes or neighborhoods that were under-resourced to begin with, the journey can be fraught with additional threats. While these veterans have become accomplished, skilled teammates and leaders in the military, often their home lives and neighborhoods now have even less margin for coping with joblessness, addictions, and inadequate education.
What can be done? The military can better prepare veterans for their return. Admirably the Department of Defense is considering revamping its exit process to better connect returning veterans to services and resources they need. We can also do a better job of identifying those people who are at risk of homelessness and introducing them to services early in the re-entry process. This can go far in helping them to avert a condition that no veteran should bear.
At the same time, employers can bring veterans' resumes to the top of the pile. Today's young veterans make great hires, bringing maturity, crisis management skills and loyalty to the table.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has called for zero homeless veterans by 2015. With 75,000 veterans still on the streets on any one night, it is a tall order, but together with the strategic support of the government, businesses, social services and private citizens, it is one that we must deliver.
Tori Lyon is Executive Director of Jericho Project, a New York-based nonprofit ending homelessness at its roots.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.