Veterans of Failure : For Many Homeless, the Despair Was Born in a War Called Vietnam : Robert Clark: At War With the Cycle of Disintegration
Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1988 | GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer
Lingering remnants of a haunting war can be found all across America this Veterans Day--at shelters, drug and alcohol treatment centers and soup kitchens.
They are the homeless Vietnam veterans, a troubled minority who--for reasons as complicated as the war they fought--now live on the margins, by choice or by circumstance.
Most of the 3 million veterans who survived their time in and around Vietnam have long ago readjusted to civilian life. Yet the incidence of permanent psychological wounding, resulting in chronic joblessness and homelessness, has been a bigger problem for Vietnam-era veterans than those of other wars.
Estimates put the number of homeless Vietnam veterans at between 50,000 and 100,000. Studies suggest that about a third of the nation's homeless are military veterans. Vietnam-era vets, including those who served elsewhere during the war, make up the single biggest chunk of homeless vets--nearly 38%, according to a recent Veterans Administration survey. And as many as 40% of Vietnam combat veterans may have significant readjustment problems.
A litany of misery, regret, pain and failure lies behind these numbers. Stories of homeless Vietnam veterans often share a surprising sameness. Family trouble, mental illness, drugs, alcohol, crime and violence are frequent themes. Sometimes the war looms large. Sometimes it is overshadowed by the anarchy of their lives back home.
But, according to psychologist and Vietnam veteran Ben Jennings, who works in a Vietnam vets outreach center in Silver Spring, Md., service in the Vietnam War is not the determining factor for a majority of homeless Vietnam veterans.
"A lot of studies on homeless people in general have found that the biggest factor is not, oddly enough, education or poverty or job skills or alcohol or drug abuse, but a poor adjustment to society, an inability to adjust adequately to society," said Jennings.
"They were good soldiers. And then they were released with no training or preparation and have never adjusted to society since then," he added.
But there is also a smaller segment of homeless Vietnam veterans for whom service in the war is the cause of their plight.
"These are the vets who had extremely traumatic experiences in Vietnam, so traumatic they have never adjusted since. . . . They're living Vietnam every day. They have never left Vietnam," said Jennings. "They still think in terms of being vigilant, being careful, not trusting others, not trusting society. Every day is living on the edge of society."
In the most severe cases, those in which the syndrome called post-traumatic stress disorder has been crippling, "we don't talk in terms of a cure," Jennings said. "We talk in terms of getting better. The memories don't ever go away. What can go away is a lot of the pain."
Whatever the reasons, they are out there and these are two of their stories.
Big-Six Bobby took a long time to end up, homeless and drunk, at an alcohol treatment center in Santa Monica. By his own account, former Marine Cpl. Robert L. Clark, who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, has lived a headstrong, careless, impulsive life, milestoned by many jobs, many affairs, three marriages, much drinking, prison and family tragedy. In the last year especially, he said in an hourlong interview, he has ridden a downward spiral. He has been homeless for about nine months.
In fact, the circle of his life has become so constricted that events are beginning to repeat themselves, he said. It was his second visit this year to the treatment center and he had been sober three days, he said.
"See, before I never saw a retracing of an event," Clark, 38, explained. "Everything was new. I was always going somewhere else. The faces were new and the problems were new and everything. But now I'm just reliving the last nine months . . . and I'm seeing the recurring thing. The last nine months of my life, what are they good for? Why even live them? They were worthless."
Stories of Resentment
Other homeless Vietnam veterans in Los Angeles tell similar stories of disintegration and debilitation. In some ways, Clark's experience seems more hopeful than most: He has spent only months on the street, not years. He apparently maintains at least tenuous contact with his family; other homeless veterans say they have not talked to relatives in years, in some cases decades. And he has vowed to turn his life around--quit drinking, find a job, forget the past, start fresh.
But like some of the others, Clark shares a resentment toward the Armed Forces. "I came back (from Vietnam) with a pretty harsh attitude about the United States and an alcohol habit," he said.
From Clark's viewpoint, things went off-course almost immediately after he enlisted in the Marine Corps in December, 1968. (His service time was verified by a Marine Corps spokesman in Washington but other details of his record were not available.)