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For Returning Veterans, Home is Not Always So Sweet

December 12, 2012 | Travis Rogers Jr. - The Hands Foundation

The United States celebrates Veteran’s Day annually with a holiday that was once Armistice Day commemorating the end of hostilities concluding the First World War. In 1954, President Eisenhower changed the observation to include all veterans and not just those who served in World War I.


What has become painfully clear is that while Armistice Day may have rejoiced in the end of combat, the veterans who have served the country so faithfully and well have not always seen an end to their troubles. A nation that usually welcomes soldiers home from fighting is also usually unaware of the battle that continues to rage for these service personnel after they have left war-zones and have returned to the “safety” of home.


A nation that gives them the best equipment in the world to survive in war has not always adequately equipped them to survive in peace. The returning veterans have often been allowed to slip through the cracks of veterans’ aid services. They return needing psychological help, employment counseling and affordable housing guidance.


In the case of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq it is the psychological stress and trauma that has created the severe conditions that so often lead to unemployment and homelessness. While Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are less likely to have substance abuse problems they are more likely to suffer mental illness, particularly post-traumatic stress, according to the Veterans Administration. 


Unemployment and homelessness have become staggeringly wide-spread among U.S. veterans. Some analysts say there are also some factors particular to the Iraq war, like multiple deployments and the proliferation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which could be pulling an early trigger on stress disorders that can lead to homelessness.


Compare this to most Vietnam veterans who began showing manifestations of stress disorders approximately ten years after returning from the front, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have shown the signs much earlier.


"There's something about going back, and a third and a fourth time, that really aggravates that level of stress," said Michael Blecker, executive director of Swords to Plowshares, a homeless-vet outreach program. "And being in a situation where you have these IEDs, everywhere is a combat zone. There's no really safe zone there. I think that all is just a stew for post-traumatic stress disorder."


"War changes people," says John Driscoll, vice president for operations and programs at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. "Your trust in people is strained. You've been separated from loved ones and friends. The camaraderie between troops is very extreme, and now you feel vulnerable."


This mistrust of people alongside the feeling of vulnerability and pride has caused many of the veterans to avoid shelters and aid organizations. Some have developed such a jaundiced view of government that they refuse to seek help from governmental agencies. This was just the situation that was discovered by a former Marine and disabled veteran name Tom McKenna.


McKenna has been working with and for struggling veterans for over 11 years. His work includes assisting veterans with benefit claims and ensuring they gain access to medical treatment through the Veterans Administration and other agencies.


McKenna says “I have known homeless vets who have been homeless for days and some who had been on the street for decades...They are those same proud, capable, individuals I served alongside, and trusted with my life. I am committed to assisting them rediscover who they are, so that they can take the steps necessary to reclaiming who they should be.”


McKenna created a help organization called “Help-A-Vet” wherein there are no salaries or paid staff members. Large governmental organizations, such as the Veterans Administration, may work admirably in trying to alleviate veterans’ homelessness, but they often fail over time because the veterans may not fit the program that has been created. McKenna believes that helping a veteran to rediscover for themselves who they are, and creating the conditions necessary for success, provides a “template for long term success and stability.”


Restoration of pride and self worth are essential for a homeless veteran to again contribute to society. The Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans estimates that close to 4,100 veterans will experience "an episode of homelessness" this year in the Twin Cities alone, according to the nonprofit organization's website. That number is approximately the same for Wisconsin.


However, "There is no real accurate count," McKenna said of the number of homeless vets. "Veterans tend to avoid the shelter system. It's a mistrust of government, especially with the Vietnam-era veterans." Because veterans often don't seek out shelters, McKenna and his volunteers have to find them where they live.


"There are specific bridges we know they live under, or in homeless camps," he said.


The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says the nation's homeless veterans have served in World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom or in the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. 47% of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era and more than 67% served our country for at least three years. 89% have received Honorable Discharges.


The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that in 2006 almost half a million veterans were homeless at some point during the year.


The VA and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a supplemental report to their 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress on veterans. The supplement estimated that 76,000 veterans across the nation experience homelessness on any given night.


Again, Tom McKenna says, “The issue is not how many veterans are without a home, because if there is but one, it’s one too many. The important thing to focus on is that all of these men and women have put their lives on the line to defend our nation, and now they need our help.”


While trying to gain assistance for these veterans, the veterans remain hungry, cold and unsheltered. It was this issue that drew McKenna to seek the help of the Hands Foundation. Hands had been delivering quilts and blankets to a homeless shelter when they were approached by Jessie McKenna, wife of Tom. She asked if more quilts were available because she had a great need for them and began to explain the work that she and her husband had been doing for so long and without much help.


The Hands Foundation jumped on board and together with Help-A-Vet have undertaken the first step strategy of clothing and supplying these homeless veterans, especially for the upcoming winter months.


All involved admit that this is only the beginning. Counseling, employment and housing are the goal but the veterans must be kept warm and fed until those goals can be reached. HelpAVet and the Hands Foundation are two local organizations that help and communities everywhere are beginning to hear the sorry news of how veterans who have served their country have not been served by their country. Veterans who have lost their home can receive the support to get back on their feet that they have earned.


Any veteran or any person wishing to help a homeless veteran can contact the VA’s National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838) to speak to a trained VA responder. The hotline and online chat are free and neither VA registration nor enrollment in VA healthcare is required to use either service. These services are available to homeless veterans and to veterans at risk of homelessness.


Those wishing to help the immediate needs of these veterans may contribute blankets, quilts, cold-weather gear, sleeping bags and new toiletry items (soap, deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc.). Other essential items include underwear and neck-warmers and even thermal undergarments.


These items can be contributed at local drop-boxes established at D&J Farm and Home in Thorp, Creekside Convenience in Owen and Mueller Automotive in Owen. No item is too small to donate.


Contact Scott or Deb Marrier at 715-229-4456 or for more information on donating items of this type through the Hands Foundation or contact Tom McKenna of HelpAVet at


Helping the immediate needs of veterans is of extreme importance but there must be greater measures taken by the federal and state governments to address the needs of at-risk veterans before such tragedies occur. Concerned citizens are encouraged to write members of their state legislatures and to their US Senator and Representative to demand better care for those who cared enough to put themselves in harm’s way.


“Now we are coming home. By no means are we home. I believe we're going to see a couple decades of challenges associated with the stresses we've not been dealing with and the issues we've been packing away.”Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Michael Mullen (US Army,Ret.)


On Sunday, December 9, St. Katherine’s Episcopal Church presented a rare opportunity to meet and speak with Tom and Jessie McKenna of the Twin Cities-based “Help-A-Vet” Program. McKenna was featured in the O-W Enterprise’s Veterans’ Day article of November 7. It was a unique chance to hear McKenna speak of his own encounters with homeless veterans and what drew him to help them. From his own experience as a disabled marine veteran, he spoke of coming home to no job and no idea of what to do next. “Fortunately for me,” he says, “I got a job with Coca-Cola and I was okay but lots of guys had nowhere to go.”


He recounted how one day he was driving and saw a man on the street corner with a sign which read “Marine vet. Anything helps. God Bless.” McKenna says that he had driven by men just like that so many times before and he doesn’t know what made this man or this day any different. He turned around and found the man again. He approached the ex-marine and asked him how he came to be there — homeless and without work. The veteran replied, “I don’t even know anymore.” McKenna asked, “Well, what do you need?” The vet thought and said, “Well, I really need underwear.” McKenna took the guy to a store and gave him money to purchase underwear. He only saw the man one other time but the marine recognized his benefactor and lifted his shirt and pulled up the underwear waist-band to show McKenna the evidence of what McKenna had bought for him. “He was letting me know that he was okay.”


That awoke something in Tom McKenna. He left Coca-Cola “even though we were doing quite well,” he remembers. He and his wife began to work with homeless veterans and have been doing so for the last 11 years. “I realized,” he said, “that some would never come home. Some would never be able to get and hold a job. Some will never go to shelters. We have to go to them. They will never be saved by any program. All we can do is keep them warm.”


These veterans come home from war zones but this is where they are scared. The Veterans Administration is not prepared for the coming stand-down following the end of operations in Afghanistan. There will be too many veterans and too little help. McKenna says, “We will not be the ones who tell them to go stand in a line or go stand at that window. We will be the ones who stand with them.”


Help-A-Vet has partnered with The Hands Foundation to find the ways and means of getting much-needed winter gear and supplies to these veterans and McKenna has found ways to increase the outreach to these in need. Doctors and dentists have volunteered their time and resources to go to where these veterans are and bring medical and dental relief. He has even been approached by attorneys who have offered their services to those vets who may have had small charges brought against them that could render them ineligible for government assistance.


It is not money that is needed; it is supplies and talents and skills that can be donated that make the biggest difference. Quilts provided by St. Katherine’s in Owen, Nazareth Lutheran in Withee and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Whittlesey have been hugely helpful and very welcome by the veterans.


McKenna said that it is sometimes startling to hear a veteran asking for a different quilt because he thinks “that one is prettier” or “I like that color better.” It reminds him that, despite the hardships these people have endured, simple love of color and beauty remain intact.


McKenna still works a full-time job with a government veterans agency but he and his wife Jessie devote their personal time to helping those who have put been neglected or over-looked by so many agencies and individuals. The Reverend Tony Ring of St. Katherine’s asked the pointed question “Are you doing work that the government should be doing?” McKenna offered an unequivocal “Yes, and I would say that if they were here in the room.”


To further Tom and Jessie McKenna’s “Help-A-Vet” Program, Scott and Deb Marrier of the Hands Foundation went to work to find an appropriate vehicle to help carry goods and services to the veterans-in-need. McKenna was looking for an old school bus to be converted but when Scott Marrier was informed of a motor-home for sale at Mueller Automotive. When the purpose for the motor-home was revealed to all concerned, the seller dropped his price, the salesman dropped his commission, a new roof was put on the vehicle and a large donation was received toward the purchase.


It is proof of what a willing community can do to alleviate the suffering of others. When cash is difficult to raise, the making of quilts, the giving of water-bottles and toiletry items, the knitting of caps and neck-warmers, the donation of skills and services and the contribution of new or clean clothing to drop boxes at Creekside Convenience, O-W Sports & Liquor, Mueller Automotive and D&J’s Farm and Home have provided thousands of items needed by the homeless veterans.


As McKenna said, “Everything, no matter how small, is good for something.” The work done by small communities like Owen, Withee, Whittlesey and Thorp have made a huge impact in the work being done by veterans for veterans.



-by Travis Rogers, Jr. / The Hands Foundation

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