- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“I call them by their first name.” That’s how James Street, a counselor with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ national Homeless Veterans Programs, builds rapport with dazed fellow veterans lacking a home or job, who represent one out of four homeless souls.

It’s “a profound experience” when they hear their name, he said, and helps them see “I’m a human being.”

Mr. Street was featured in “Beyond the Wall: Homeless Zone,” screened at the 2010 GI Film Festival. This incisive documentary, directed by Alivia Tagliaferri, explores war’s hidden wounds - causing what has been dubbed, since Operation Enduring Freedom’s October 2001 launch in Afghanistan, post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS), or disorder (PTSD), if it languishes - often compounded by traumatic brain injury (TBI).

These hidden wounds of war were emphasized throughout this year’s fest as our nation awakens to the reality of 320,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from PTSD.

“Pax,” Glenn Close’s directorial debut, screened at the Canadian Embassy on GIFF’s opening day, is about a dog named Pax, trained through Puppies Behind Bars’ Dog Tags Program, who has helped PTSD/TBI-afflicted Iraq war veteran Sgt. Bill Campbell.

Sgt. Campbell’s wife, Domenica, explained during the accompanying panel, moderated by ABC’s Bob Woodruff, who suffered severe TBI in Iraq in 2006, how Pax helps her husband overcome his symptoms (e.g., hypervigilance, nightmares, hallucinations, flashbacks and depression).

Hypervigilance, she said, means, for instance, “being in your own front yard and a car passes, and my husband would literally conceal himself … or outside in the mall, he can’t keep track of all the people’s faces … and that’s very stressful on him.”

But Pax “diverts his attention.” Whereas previously, upon arriving at a restaurant, he’d try to sit with his “back to a wall” or where there was “a clear path to an exit,” now, with Pax in tow, she quipped to hearty laughter, “it’s ‘which table has the least crumbs under it?’ “

So, though his head is affected, his heart is the key to healing.

Pax also helps him know what’s real when he has auditory or visual hallucinations, gently pulls him back to reality when he suffers a flashback, and gives him a reason to rise each day - to tend to Pax’s many needs.

Would that all veterans were as lucky as Sgt. Campbell, who has such a devoted wife and dog.

Nationally, according to Peter H. Dougherty, director of Homeless Veterans Programs, in 2007, each night 154,000 homeless veterans slept on America’s streets or in shelters, sometimes as part of a treatment program. Given VA’s comprehensive program to end homelessness, those numbers have decreased by about 18 percent.

Still, much work remains.

“We can’t end homelessness by money,” Mr. Street said. “It’s got to take a person” who will reach out and tell a homeless person help is his for the asking.

Mr. Street, nearing retirement, reaches out to homeless veterans every day - by name - intervening to save Iraq veterans like Paul Verner and Natalia Johnson, also featured in Ms. Tagliaferri’s film, who otherwise would have spiraled further down in their unemployed, wandering, substance-abusing haze.

Pastor James Lewis, director of ministries at Central Union Mission in Washington, a veteran who fought in Vietnam, emphasized the critical need, as part of the healing process, to share the pain of war with another human being who knows what you’ve been through, having endured similar experiences.

Vietnam veterans like Mr. Street and Mr. Lewis, Ms. Tagliaferri told me, are actively mentoring Afghanistan and Iraq veterans grappling with PTSD.

Mr. Lewis describes the war experience like cracks in the foundation. And, whereas the military structures one’s life, as both Mr. Verner and Ms. Johnson articulated, after military retirement, with no structure, the cracks can prove destabilizing during the important civilian readjustment period, sometimes exacerbated by previously undetected or untreated cracks. And, instead of reaching out, retired military tend - stoically - to ignore symptoms and self-medicate with alcohol and/or drugs.

Mr. Verner, now employed, said he discovered through his recovery that “everyone needs help” and that “the biggest thing … people … need to know” - especially if they’re dealing with a war-traumatized vet - is “don’t turn your back on them; help them.”

Brig. Gen. Loree K. Sutton, who heads the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, emphasized during the “Pax” panel the need to transform military culture “one hope at a time” by communicating that “we are not alone; that the unseen wounds of war are real; that treatment works and the earlier we can intervene, the better. And finally, that reaching out is an act of courage and strength.” And an act of humanity and heart, too.

Mary Claire Kendall, a Washington-based writer, served in the Department of Health and Human Services under President George H.W. Bush.

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