Constitutional Emergency

Meeting two homeless Veterans vs. mostly just writing about PTSD

Jack E. Kemp

Last Friday I was just about to enter a subway in Manhattan when I spotted a young homeless veteran nearby holding up a sign and an identification card proving he was authentic. This kid with a baby face was originally from the Boston area, proud of his team's recent World Series victory (I was glad to see him smile about something positive he personally identified with). He said he had been to the (Strong) STAR system   that the military uses to treat PTSD, but STAR obviously didn't work for him at this point in his life. We talked as he sat on the ground near a building wall as most New Yorkers hurried by him on their way about their business, oblivious to his presence. The young vet, although from New England, was complaining about the autumn chill and noticed that other people walking by were not bothered by it. He also asked if I were cold to get my feedback. I told him I wasn't and can only guess at the cause of his chill. Perhaps it was the chill of the sidewalk.

I have written a number of articles in 2012 about PTSD, rape in the military, military war dogs and therapy dogs for those with Post Traumatic Stress, etc. But without my shoulder bag which often contains a print out for one veterans' helping organization, I was without a single suggestion I could name to give him a glimmer of hope and some direction. Yes, I had read twenty books last year on this subject, visited a fund raiser for a retired military war dog charity, been to two Wounded Warriors' Soldiers Ride events - and I couldn't give this kid anything else but a few moments of my time, a small donation and a handshake when I left him. 

As I walked away, I decided to go to a Staples store I knew to be a few blocks away and rent a computer terminal so I could print out a few pages of veterans' information found with both a search engine listing and from an old internet article of mine. Locating an even closer Staples store up the next street with rental computers, I logged on and printed out a few pages for the young man from Boston (more on cutting down the amount of paper needed later). But when I returned to the corner where he had been sitting, apparently he had taken his donations and gone off to get a hot coffee or tea to get rid of his chill. I didn't even get his first name. 

But the young vet from Boston taught me a lesson. I went home and printed out two more sets of the 2-4 page veterans' website home pages and returned the next day to the same part of Manhattan. The original veterans-helping-veterans flyer from I used to carry around, much to my chagrin, only has a pay phone number for the West Coast (northern California). And I didn't even know the address of the VA hospital in Manhattan when I met him (it is near First Ave. on 23rd Street). Even if any vets I might meet had already known this address, at least I should be able to mention it as a way to open or continue a conversation with them.  

In ten minutes on that street corner I had gone from a "local PTSD expert" to the computer nerd in the Doonesbury cartoon who gets overwhelmed when he has to talk to real people and yells, "Liveware! I don't handle liveware!" (or some similar wording). Okay, it wasn't all THAT bad, but it was bad enough. With all the information I've gathered about PTSD since 2010, I now realized this chance meeting with the young veteran was meant to show me that my writing wasn't just for people in warm or air conditioned homes with high speed internet access 24/7 and maybe just a few problems but my findings were for everyone - literally. What I have found needs to be communicated in a form that anyone can quickly grasp and to be carried on one or a few pages for the next homeless vet I see and receive in downtown Manhattan. And it needs to contain both toll free numbers for organizations and website listings for use at a public library's internet terminals (and maybe a positive word or two of hope). How many of these vets would feel too confused or troubled to walk into a library and deal with finding the terminals? That question was not a criticism but literally a question for which I cannot guess at an accurate answer today. 

Now armed with my print outs, I returned to the same corner in Manhattan the next day. The young guy from Boston was nowhere to be found, but further up the street, there was another homeless vet with a sign who I shall call Bob (not his real name). 

Bob was from New York City and had been in the Marines. He did not hold up a card showing he was discharged but appeared to be legitimate in his manner and conversation. If this were a con, it didn't take long to see that he would have made a lot more money playing the harmonica in the subway system than the meager handouts he got while sitting on a cold pavement. In fact, Bob complained about a fake Vietnam era non-combat veteran (and possibly non-veteran) in Union Square Park. And Bob told me about someone else who had suggested that he game the system and claim he was sexually molested in the military in order to get an instant fat pension (as if everyone is a skilled liar and can convince the VA). But Bob said could not bring himself to do that. Bob also mentioned working for corporations when he got out of the service that say they hire vets but only gave one day of work a week, a situation that only helped the company's public relations. Bob also said that he studied the New York City Public Shelter System and claimed their cost per person housed per night - with all the bureaucratic overhead - was $90 a day. 

"They could have given me a job for that money," the City veteran said. I don't know where Bob could find housing for $450 a month in New York (four times his theoretical weekly pay) but he was clearly showing me that he wanted to work and have pride in accomplishment. Bob had gotten out of the service and had started to drink which is what he at first thought was the cause of nonstop nightmares that eventually came to him. But he stopped drinking and realized it wasn't the drinking but PTSD. I was in no position to analyze his situation or cure his PTSD - two things I readily admitted to him (for emphasis because it was obviously the case). But at this meeting I was able to give this veteran that set of papers I had prepared with the veteran-to-veteran toll free help phone numbers, along with the helpful websites. After we talked for a while, we shook hands and parted company as I walked towards the subway.

Although neither Bob nor the Bostonian seemed suicidal (I'm no psychologist), I want to mention briefly here the often related issue of suicide prevention among troubled veterans.  In his book "Faces of Combat PTSD & TBI, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eric Newhouse writes of his efforts to help troubled veterans and recommends calling the VA Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. This is alsoa number listed below in my handout sheet suggestion. Also Victor Montgomery III, a former crisis intervention therapist who worked at the National Veterans Suicide Crisis Hotline Center, wrote a book about his experiences called "Healing Suicidal Veterans" and recommends the same phone number, 1-800-273-8255. This book's author has taken calls such as one from a veteran who spun the cylinders of a revolver near his telephone handset microphone so the counselor could hear and told Montgomery that he had just about 2 minutes to talk the veteran out of taking his own life. The conselor succeeded in talking him down and getting him help - in this case.

What do we do? Yes, we. I challenge the readers here who see or know of homeless vets in their area to carry a few copies of the short version of my Help List below to give out to anyone who appears legitimate and who could benefit from the information. Even if they "fool"  you, you will  be out a half a page of paper and roughly 1 cent in expenses. When Abraham Lincoln was an attorney, he used to tell farmers on a jury in his summation to decide the case by asking themselves on what outcome they would bet one penny. Let's use Abe's method. Your "risk" of one cent could also help someone and possibly save a life. If you carry around 10 half pages with this little help list, you will have invested a whole nickel. I'd say only approach those vets that have a sign saying they are looking for help (in the form of cash) - but you could give them this short Help List and a minute of your time. Cash donations are up to you. As one non-veteran panhandler on the New York subway says, "If you can't give any money, at least give a smile."

The longer PTSD Handout Package I created consists of  the items below numbered 1) through 5) printed out as full home pages. If you want to save costs, you might just want to print out  the first page of these website home pages for these 5 items - and do it using your printer's black & white option. The more expensive printing of pages in color has a more visual impact when seen but is probably best used for a single set of handouts such as one set given to someone you know personally.  

As stated above - and as many of you probably have already figured out - the lowest cost and most convenient handout to create is one where you just print this descriptive list of five items below which would fit on half a page of black and white text. That is easy for a Veteran so suff in their pocket. And coming from a real human being who stopped for two minutes and cared enough to give it to them would make the veteran a lot less likely to throw it away - and maybe even call one of those numbers. 

Giving away this list below is a challenge. It will take you out of your comfort zone and isn't for everyone. For many the physical size of yourself and the veteran will be a consideration. But handing his out is not as big a challenge as rushing a machine gun nest in Fallujah or surviving a roadside bomb in Kabul.


The Veterans Help Handout List

1) (has toll free number 1-866-967-8766)

2) Give An Hour - psychologists who volunteer some time to treat Veterans  
This website also gives a phone number for immediate help:

Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 to talk to someone NOW

3) Veterans Administration Resources for Vets website, nationwide.

4) Veterans for Veterans Stress Project

5) A link to a PTSD handout Reference Library, a one page list of books and websites on PTSD. The books are mostly references for professionals and family members. Others might want to pick out just one book to read. I know most of you have more things to do with your time and money than go through the entire list.
(has the toll free number for 1-888-4HW-HERO)

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