Serve the country, sleep on the street

This week we lost Frank Buckles, the last American veteran of World War I, and, with his passing, those who have served were again brought to the forefront of our consciousness. Buckles’ is a quintessentially American story and easy to celebrate. He joined the Army at 17 having been turned down by the Marines (for being too young and too thin) and the Navy (for having flat feet) and signed up to drive an ambulance in France. After the War, he traveled the world working in the shipping industry (even spending three years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II). He was still driving a tractor around his cattle ranch at age 106. He will be buried at Arlington with full military honours (as he should be).

Contrast Buckles’ story with those of Anthony Bullock and William Roland, Jr., both Privates, First Class in the U.S. Army who were buried this week at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, MI. Bullock served in Vietnam and died in 2009 at 58; Roland also served, although it’s unclear when or where, and died in 2007 at 78. Both were homeless. After their respective deaths, their remains stayed, unclaimed and unburied, in the morgue until the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program made arrangements for them.

Unfortunately, these stories are not extraordinary. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), on any given night 107,000 men and women who served this country will be homeless. Over the course of the year twice that many veterans will face homelessness. The VA reports that there are over 2,600  homeless veterans in Pennsylvania alone.  The National Council for Homeless Veterans  estimates that roughly one out of every three men sleeping on the streets has served this country.

The need for shelter far outweighs the current availability. The VA is only able to accommodate approximately 92,000 requests for beds, which leaves over 100,000 veterans with nowhere to go.  In short, there is a tremendous need for safe, secure and clean housing that offers a supportive environment, free of drugs and alcohol.

The great majority of homeless veterans seek help from community agencies like Victory House of the Lehigh Valley, which does wonderful work. As does CACLV’s Safe Harbor Easton which, while not the primary focus, allows veterans to live in a safe and structured environment that encourages personal development and self-sufficiency.

Each November we celebrate Veteran’s Day and reflect on the dedication and courage of the men and women who have served this country. But what happens after they come home? Do we do right by them? No veteran should ever be deserted by the country they served.

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