IN 2006, I SERVED AS A U.S. NAVY IT specialist aiding my ship’s mission of finding and neutralizing pirates off the coast of Somalia. Two years later, I was homeless, standing in a line in Gainesville, Florida, that twisted around the block so I could donate blood in exchange for 20 bucks.
Many of the men waiting with me looked almost as bad as I did— all of us homeless and hungry. My hair was matted, crusted from dandruff, and my eyes were bloodshot. My fingers tingled because of withdrawal from the anti-anxiety medications I wasn’t getting from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Between childhood trauma and my four years in the service, I relied on medications such as clonazepam for anxiety and Zoloft for PTSD, but the VA delivered my medication through the mail, and I hadn’t had a stable home for some time—I was couch surfing, car snoozing or sleeping in the back of the restaurant where I worked. With no permanent address, my meds never found me.
Sadly, my situation was far from unique. On a single night in January 2020, 37,252 veterans were victims of homelessness. And the VA processes about 80 percent of veteran prescriptions by mail, so when a veteran loses their home, they often lose access to the medications their life depends on.
Veterans bear the physical and mental scars of military service, yet when they return home, many of us face a society ill-equipped to offer proper care. Instead, once a year, our country celebrates Veterans Day with parades, services and department store sales. But homeless veterans don’t need discounts; we need a system that protects them.
We need a comprehensive approach, one that ensures access to jobs, housing, medication and treatments that holistically address their needs. Instead, many veterans who leave the tangle of war end up on America’s streets, still fighting daily for their survival.
This was the fate I was trying to escape when I left the projects on Chicago’s South Side. I came from the Robert Taylor Homes, infamous for their brutality, murder, rape and drugs. On 9/11, I got swept up in the patriotism that gripped the nation. At 15, I vowed to join the military to serve my country, knowing if I died, at least it wouldn’t be on the streets. At 18, I enlisted in the Navy. I spent four years traveling the world engaged in goodwill missions, intelligence gathering and assistance with other military branches.
But this regimented life wore on me. I saw firsthand the misuse of American military power, our imperialist treatment of developing countries and the harm we inflicted on vulnerable people. It triggered a crisis of conscience and more trauma in my already depleted body. I was ready to return to civilian life.
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