Independent Project

From the Frontlines to the Homefront

By Jessica Militello

*I do not own these photos- Educational Purposes only
In cities across America, red white and blue flags wave high in the fronts of businesses and homes in residential neighborhoods. Signs and stickers with messages like, “We support our troops,” and “Land of the free, because of the brave,” are displayed prominently on bumper stickers and in the windows of people’s homes. Most Americans feel passionately about supporting our military troops overseas, so much so that when athletes knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequality, it became a national controversy. Some view the custom of standing for the anthem as paying homage to troops. Sports fans boycotted watching games and some sponsors even pulled their ads.

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But who are the soldiers who Americans so ardently defend and pay homage to during football games and Veteran’s Day parades? In television and films, they are the patriotic, risking their lives for their country and their comrades. But when the credits roll at the end of the film, seldom do we see the experiences of these soldiers after they return home. It is a different kind of battlefront. Soldiers live with post-traumatic stress disorder and struggle to assimilate into a society that has not seen or felt what these men and women have experienced. Suicide rates are high among these veterans.

Wayne Townsend, 55, is a retired NYPD officer and a 25-year Army veteran who first served in Desert Storm in 1989 as an Intel soldier.

“I always wanted to be a soldier,” says Townsend, who first joined the Reserves at the age of 26, “but my wife got pregnant. I figured in the Reserves, I would be sent for training once a month and two weeks in the summer. My recruiter told me I wouldn’t be sent away, but I completed my basic training and military intelligence training and graduated in July of 1989. By August I was mobilized to Saudi Arabia.”

For Townsend, the military represented a way to express his patriotism for America, but the concept was complicated for his mother and father who lived in the South during a time of particular racial tension.

“As a kid, I believed in the American dream, the American ideal,” he said. “My dad was 50, he came up in the South so he saw the Klan at work. He had friends who were murdered. My mother was light skinned, she grew up with a lot of resentment from both sides. She had resentment toward society. She wasn’t bitter, but wary of it, so she hated the fact that I joined the Army.”

Townsend says he was inspired by Hollywood.

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“I grew up watching Army pictures and the films were all John Wayne,” he says. “I grew up during the Cold War. Russia was the bad guy and a threat to democracy. I wanted to be part of the fight.”

As Townsend progressed in his career, he was mobilized five times, to locations such as Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, and the war in Iraq after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. Eventually, he moved to work in retention detail of the military, an office which is tasked with convincing soldiers to remain active.

When he retired in November of 2014, Townsend became eligible to enroll for veteran’s benefits but explains that the process makes it very difficult to actually earn these benefits because the system is often disorganized and overloaded.

“Imagine if you’re homeless, have PTSD, or you’re missing an arm,” Townsend says. “When you’re a soldier you’re told, here’s the mission, get in the trucks and let’s go. You’re used to things happening, you’re not used to sitting around on the phone, talking to someone who’s probably not a vet. Getting that person on the phone, they’re pushing a button and you’re just a number on the computer screen. You have to get that person who cares. For me, it was the fourth person I spoke to.”

According to the American Community Survey 2012, out of 22 million veterans in the United States, only 8.9 million are enrolled for veteran’s health benefits. Additionally, more than 1.2 million veterans had no health insurance coverage at all.
Gaining access to the benefits they are promised upon signing up becomes a complicated task since the Department of Defense and Veteran’s Affairs do not coordinate. A soldier will often have to travel between both departments in order to get the correct information needed to ensure their requests with the VA goes through. Instances occur where requests for benefits are improperly denied, according to a report from the VA inspector general’s office. More recent studies show that applications are backlogged. In 2012, five whistleblowers revealed that during 13 years, over 13,000 claims were stashed in a file cabinet in an Oakland, California, office and were completely ignored. At the time of the CBS report, the VA said it was due to the fact the agency was switching to an electronic system.

Other services intended for soldiers like the crisis hotline often falter. According to Greg Hughes, the hotline’s former director, such calls can go unanswered or be sent to voicemail, despite the fact that soldiers commit suicide at higher rates. In a study by Veteran’s Affairs, 20 veterans commit suicide daily; only six of them are enrolled in veteran’s health care, either because they were denied or did not to sign up for it.

Lloyd Beckford, 41, a retired Marine who served for 20 years as a combat engineer has personally known at least two of his comrades who took their own lives. One happened while on a military base, while another took place after Beckford retired. But Beckford doesn’t feel that Veteran’s Affairs are entirely to blame.

“I think the main support system that prevents it from happening is family,” says Beckford. “For veterans who have it, the numbers decrease because of the support system. Transitioning back to civilian life is difficult. The VA can only do so much, once you leave, they’re no longer there.”

Beckford came to the United States from Jamaica when he was 12 years old and enlisted for the Marines when he was 19.

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“I was going to school, I had a job, and it wasn’t working out,” he says. “I needed a change. I wanted to be successful and I chose the Marines because of the uniform and the discipline.”

Over the expanse of Beckford’s military career, he was mobilized to places like Okinawa, South Korea, and different military bases in the United States such as Quantico and Camp Pendleton.

Beckford believes one problem is a disconnect between soldiers and civilians, as well as a military mentality that may make soldiers feel too proud to ask for assistance, especially if they have to ask someone who has never experienced war.

“If you learn that you’re as weak as the weakest man, how can you ask for help if you’re supposed to be the strongest man?” Beckford asks. “It’s almost impossible for a civilian to help. There has to be a connection. If the connection is not there they shut down.”

Beckford feels an effective plan that should be implemented is for there to be a system set in place in order to help soldiers through the process of transitioning back to civilian life, one that would take place with the assistance of another veteran who has already gone through it.

“There’s a mental transition that is not taking place, because when you separate, no one looks at that,” Beckford explains. “Unless you are able to see someone else go through it then there’s no mental understanding of what is expected of them now as a civilian. They need to integrate back into civilian life, and I think that’s why the [suicide] rate is alarmingly high. They think it’s the only option.”

Gonzalo Duran, who served for eight years in the Marines, struggled with adjusting to civilian life upon returning from his time overseas in Iraq. He was homeless and his experience inspired him to start his own non-profit organization, called Devil Dog USA Inc. The organization, located in the Bronx, has a staff of both veterans and non-veterans. It offers many services such as assistance in housing, employment, school, and gaining access to benefits.
Homelessness rates among veterans are high. Approximately 200,000 veterans in the U.S. have trouble with landlords, according to Duran. He himself had difficulties getting realtors to accept his G.I. Bill, which was intended to grant him access to education and housing. Some veterans can’t get housing through the G.I. Bill unless they were in combat or have a substance abuse problem.

In light of the many struggles of veterans, including finding and maintaining employment, Barack Obama signed acts such as the Veterans Opportunity to Work and Hire Heroes Act in 2011. The program was made mandatory for all soldiers and created a timeline of training programs that soldiers must take throughout their military careers. The intention of the act was to lower the unemployment rate and offer incentives to employers to hire veterans. Since then, the unemployment rate for veterans went from 9.9 percent in 2011 to 4.3 percent as of 2016. Additionally, Post- 9/11 unemployment decreased from 15.2 percent to 4.7 percent, according to a statement from the White House in 2016.

Most recently, President Donald Trump implemented an act which focused on soldiers’ mental health during their transition to civilian life.
On January 8, 2018, Trump signed an executive order called “Supporting Our Veterans during their Transition from Uniformed Service to Civilian Life,” according to a press release from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. The act is intended for the first year after a soldier separates from military to civilian life. It aims to “expand peer community outreach and group sessions and extend the Department of Defense’s ‘Be There Peer Support Call and Outreach Center.’” It aims to provide “seamless access” to mental health treatment. According to the Washington Post, 60 percent of soldiers do not have access to such treatment until the government determines that there is a connection between their health issues and their military service. The order went into effect in March 2018.

Orlando Pellot, the director of The Bronx Vet Center believes the executive order will be crucial in providing an outlet for soldiers after they separate from their military service.

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“The [order] will definitely be helpful for soldiers,” Pellot said. “Oftentimes troops feel like who better than a peer for them to talk to, a lot of times they are more comfortable. Peer support is good for soldiers to vent, but after [the first year] a trained mental health professional will understand how to help. After the first year, who better than a professional?”

The executive order is very new, so it will take time to determine whether or not there is a positive change based on the act’s intended goals. It certainly seems to be a sign of progress after many years of soldiers having to fend for themselves after separating from the military. Continued support from both the veteran and civilian community, in addition to awareness of these issues, could be a step in the right direction.