Monday, January 14, 2008

VA in Washington DC does a "Stand down"

Reaching Out to Homeless Veterans
Annual Stand-Down Offers Social Services, Place to Share Painful Memories
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 13, 2008; Page C03
The nation's gaze may have shifted to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. But for the homeless men milling through the lobby of the VA Medical Center in Washington yesterday, memories of Vietnam hung as heavily as the smell of nicotine.
"It's something I try to forget," said John Smith, 59, with a sigh. "But when I come to places like this, it comes right back to my mind."
He was sitting on a white plastic chair, waiting for a haircut. It was among the most popular of the services offered as part of the hospital's Winterhaven Homeless Veterans Stand Down.
The day-long event is held annually to reach the 2,500 homeless veterans in the Washington area. In exchange for stopping by stations ranging from an HIV screening room to employment assistance booths, the veterans were promised a lunch of barbecue chicken and their pick of free clothing.
"At the moment, only about 460 of area homeless veterans are getting services with us," said Michelle Spivak, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "So we're hoping this will encourage more of them to take advantage of all the benefits they've earned by serving their country."
Of those already receiving a service, the majority are African Americans of the Vietnam or just post-Vietnam period, Spivak said.
David Hickman, 54, who was drafted and served in the Marine Corps from 1973 to 1975, said he had not set foot in a VA medical clinic until seven months ago. "When I got out of the service, I didn't want anything to do with either the military or the government," Hickman said.
"Well, right when I got out, I did try to go to the VA just to register," he added with a bitter smile. "But there was a Korean War vet there who told me I lost a war, so I should go to the back of the line. I got so angry I clocked him."
For years, Hickman never realized that his chronic, debilitating depression had a connection to Vietnam.
Back then, the conflict was winding down, and his unit was largely charged with carrying out evacuations. Yet he still found himself under repeated fire.
"It made me so nervous," he recalled. "Because you could hear it but you had no idea where it was coming from, and you could never see anyone firing at you."
Nonetheless, Hickman said, at least he was able to return to his ship most nights. "If what I saw was enough to affect me, just think about the guys who fought in the Tet Offensive and had to sleep there for weeks."
Smith was one of those guys. He was born and raised in the District to a construction worker and a homemaker, and he said his parents were proud when he enlisted in the Army in 1967 at 19. "It seemed like a good job," Smith said. "I didn't think I'd be in combat."
Instead, for most of the next four years he saw little else. Smith said he started drinking and smoking marijuana "to calm my nerves." After he was discharged in 1972, his addiction deepened.
"I used to dream about the war a lot. Friends being killed, crying out. Nightmares and sweats," he said. "So I would drink to stop the dreaming, to get to the point where I would just pass out."
He also started hearing three voices in his head -- sometimes friendly, sometimes angry.
Although Smith was able to hold jobs as a security guard and a printing plant worker, his life became troubled. He married, then divorced, then had five children by different women. Six years ago, he started using crack cocaine and shortly afterward was convicted of a crime that, he said, "I really don't care to talk about."
But it was in jail that Smith found the resolve to try to quit alcohol and drugs. Three years ago, he decided to move out of the home he was sharing with relatives who used drugs and check into a homeless shelter.
Yesterday afternoon, he was in a philosophical mood. He was disappointed with the selection of clothing. But the morning had not been a total waste.
"The lung station was most helpful," he said. "They test your blowing capacity."
Based on the results, he said, "I've decided I'm going to try to stop smoking."

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