Homeless Veterans Want to Be Remembered on Memorial Day

Joe Lansford, a Vietnam veteran who often lived in tents and abandoned
buildings while suffering from alcoholism and PTSD, says America wouldn't
have a problem with homeless veterans if the VA provided timely healthcare
services and disability compensation after they completed their military
AMVETS, for its part, has given every member of Congress a list of more
than 100 recommendations to reform the nation's veterans benefit system

ANDERSON, Ind., and WASHINGTON, May 21 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ --
Memorial Day was established as a day of remembrance in honor of Americans
who have lost their lives while serving their country.
But Joe Lansford of Alexandria believes that Americans should also use
the occasion to remember living veterans in Indiana and across the country
who struggle with homelessness because of the Department of Veterans
Affairs' failure to provide them with timely healthcare and disability
payments when they completed their military service.
Lansford, a 52-year-old Vietnam Navy veteran who helped evacuate
Americans and Vietnamese during the fall of Saigon, was homeless several
times after he left the service in 1980 and lived a wretched existence in
everything from makeshift tents to abandoned buildings as he struggled with
alcoholism and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
"When I left the service, they didn't give me any kind of medical
evaluation," he said. "They just handed me my discharge papers and my final
check. It took the VA more than 20 years to figure out I had PTSD." And
even after doctors diagnosed Lansford with PTSD six years ago, 21 years
after he completed his military service, it took the VA another two years
to approve his disability pension.
"The VA rejected my application for disability the first time, even
though several doctors said I had PTSD," Lansford said. "These delays are
one reason why so many veterans end up homeless."
Indeed, according to VA's own statistics, more than 200,000 veterans
are homeless on any given night.
Fortunately for Lansford, he was able to turn his life around with the
help of Stepping Stones for Veterans Inc., an Anderson-based non-profit
organization that provides shelter and counseling services for homeless
The 50-bed shelter, which receives more than 80 percent of its funding
from AMVETS Post 332, has helped more than 1,500 homeless veterans since it
was founded 10 years ago.
"If we didn't have AMVETS Post 332 supporting us, our doors would be
locked," said Harold Barkdull, Stepping Stones' executive director. "The
sweet thing about that post is the majority of the membership are people in
recovery, so they empathize with others' needs. We stress giving a hand up,
not a hand out."
Unlike many government-funded veterans shelters, which typically
provide shelter and counseling services for 90 days or less, Stepping
Stones offers a two-year program. And veterans can stay even longer if they
need to.
"If we lose them in the first six months, their success rate is real
low, maybe 15 percent," Barkdull said. "But if they stay a year, the
success rate is about 60 percent. And if they stay two years, it's 80
percent or higher."
Lansford, who now lives in his own home in Alexandria and serves on the
Stepping Stones board of directors, said the two-year program is critical
because veterans need ongoing support and observation to identify the full
extent of their needs so that they can get the help they need, either from
the VA or from other organizations.
"They saved my life," Lansford said, adding, "If they hadn't helped me
get diagnosed, I would probably still be living in an abandoned school,
dead or incarcerated."
AMVETS, however, also recognizes that support for Stepping Stones and
other entities like it does not address the fundamental problem, which is
federal government's ongoing failure to provide adequate and timely
healthcare, disability and job training benefits for our men and women who
serve in the military.
With this in mind, AMVETS national headquarters organized a major
symposium for young veterans last year, whose participants recommended more
than 100 ways to improve the veterans benefit system. Their
recommendations, which were provided to Congress Nov. 9, can be found at
In its report, AMVETS encouraged Congress and federal agencies to:
-- Provide mandatory government funding for the VA so that it has
sufficient resources to properly care for our nation's veterans.
-- Switch to an e-filing system to expedite processing of veterans claims.
-- Expedite compensation and pension claim processing for homeless
-- Hire additional staff based on actual need.
-- Increase funding for temporary shelters, transitional housing, and
permanent housing programs.
"Members of Congress should do veterans a favor this Memorial Day and
study the recommendations for reform that were provided to them by AMVETS
last year," said Tom McGriff, AMVETS' national commander. "I would also
encourage members of the public to write their congressmen and encourage
them to read the report and to take action on the recommendations that were
made to them."
A leader since 1944 in preserving the freedoms secured by America's
Armed Forces, AMVETS is the only veterans service organization that
represents members of every branch of the military, including the National
Guard and Reserve. AMVETS provides support for veterans and the active
military in procuring their earned entitlements as well as community
services that enhance veterans' quality of life. More information on AMVETS
can be found at http://www.amvets.org.