I’m John Goodman. I’ve been a social worker with the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program for 15 years. I believe that things have improved over that time for veterans services. They may not be as good as they could be, but I think we’re better at recognizing needs for different types of care and support than we were when the Gulf War started, which is when I served in the Air Force right out of college.
We’re certainly better in terms of the services available than we were when Vietnam vets came back. One of the challenges that we face in helping the Vietnam era vets is that they remember those days when they felt they had come back from fighting a war to having to fight for their health needs and benefits in the VA system.
We’ve certainly begun to approach the vets’ needs more comprehensively in terms of collaborating with both the government and local community partners to provide not just health care, but also counseling centers, housing solutions, career development and employment opportunities and training, justice-related services, and re-entry services for vets who have been incarcerated. We are more focused on recognizing potential issues for vets and so we have programs for at-risk vets and their families. In my role, I help coordinate care and services for vets and their families.
I’ve worked with Butch for a couple of years now and I think we have a good rapport. I was able to coordinate his admission to the hospital to have his foot taken care of. Not an easy task, he has trust issues – like a lot of folks who served in Vietnam – not very trusting of anything related to government or institutions. Vets like Butch often feel betrayed by the government that sent them into a war that they felt they were prevented from winning. And then, when they came back, they faced either being ignored or derided for their service because there was a lot of anti-war sentiment and protest – sometimes even from those who had served with them and who they viewed as “brothers.” Butch has lots of stories about this sort of thing.
Butch came to talk to me when his friend got sick a couple of months ago. I have helped him a little over the last few months. Butch is one of those patients that are just special, that you’d do anything for. Lucky for me, he trusts me. He is stubborn though. Crazy stubborn! I suppose he is going to need my help now for sure.
Some of the other vets I worked with for years can be difficult to assist because of the pain that still lingers. Despite recent years, and the public attention to the ground and air war in Vietnam, more people recognize the amount of sacrifice that vets made, but it’s hard for them to get past that pain of their return and the trauma they faced over there. There hasn’t been as much attention to the service of the navy and their part in the war, so some of the navy vets feel doubly slighted. I’d say most people don’t think the navy was much at risk or saw any real conflict. Even as a social worker with these guys, I didn’t get it much until I saw a really good public television movie – it was a couple of years ago, I think – about the role of the navy, and especially about the Riverine Force or brown water navy. It really opened my eyes to what a dangerous assignment the brown water navy really was. It is a must see for anyone who is going to work with vets.
And then there was the chemical element – anyone who served on the coastal waterways of Vietnam between the beginning of 1962, and mid-1975, may have had contact with Agent Orange, even if they never stepped ashore. Butch tells me he tried to get VA benefits for his exposure to Agent Orange, but it used to be that the VA would not provide benefits related to agent orange exposure. Turns out, Navy vets, had to prove that they had fully come ashore onto RVN soil. Butch tells me he didn’t want to bother with all that. It wasn’t until vets filed suit against the manufacturers of agent orange that the government even admitted there might be a problem. Even though the vets won the lawsuit in 1984, fifty thousand received compensation of $5,000 or less. It was in 1989 and then 1991 that Congress authorized the VA to provide compensation and benefits to those affected by agent orange, but there were some fairly limited conditions for being eligible – non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft-tissue sarcoma, and chloracne.
The VA has added other conditions to those resulting from agent orange that qualify, but it wasn’t until around 2005 that brown water vets were included, and it wasn’t until after the NASEM 2000 report that Type 2 Diabetes was linked to agent orange exposure and became basis for disability compensation and benefits. Congress passed a bill authorizing agent orange benefits for naval vets stationed in ships off the coast of Vietnam as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to serve more of the ones who need us. I suppose I should help Butch apply again.
So, you see, vets like Butch often feel that they have had to struggle to get what’s coming to them, and at the same time, they are usually fiercely independent and don’t want anyone telling them what to do. Perhaps that relates to why they tend to have a higher proportion of homelessness than those without military service. Did you know that when they are homeless, vets tend to be that way longer than folks without military service are – on average 6 years? I’m pretty sure that Butch is getting close to that now.
I know that Butch is going to need a lot of care and support once he’s discharged from the hospital. I’ll have to contact The Community Resource and Referral Center (CRRCs) and see what there is for him. I hope he’s willing to work with me. The Community Resource and Referral Center (CRRCs) here in Phoenix serves both Veterans who are homeless and at risk of homelessness. They can help me with accessing community-based services for health and mental health care, career development, permanent housing, and access to VA and non-VA benefits.
I’m not sure where Butch is in terms of receiving his Social Security benefits, but maybe I’ll ask them about that too. Even though things are better than the past, there are some hoops to jump through, and Butch isn’t much inclined to jump through hoops. Like I said, Butch is special and I’d do anything for him.