Eashmon Baltimore smokes a cigarette in an alley behind the New York Avenue men’s homeless shelter. It is 5 p.m. and the line is beginning to form at the shelter’s back door – invisible to passing cars on the highway. Baltimore, an African-American man from Atlantic City, wears a bandanna and loose jeans. Other men jockey for positions at the front of the line, but Baltimore is content to lean against a car and chat with passersby.
He is a veteran. He served two tours with the Marines in Iraq and looks forward to his third. He treats the New York Avenue shelter as a temporary solution to some problems at home. Asked why he doesn’t take advantage of veteran’s facilities, Baltimore says he’d rather be at the shelter than the V.A. He describes a friend and amputee who’d gotten gangrene at Walter Reed Medical Center.
“Rather be here,” he says. Those are unusual words, given other men’s accounts of the New York Avenue shelter.
The men complain of rats, roaches and lack of food and blankets. One man, Tom Ashley – a 20-year Navy man and Vietnam vet – said he was forced to shower with shoes on because of a urinal leak in the bathroom. Another veteran, Pierre D. Carter – who witnessed the Tet Offensive and returned from Vietnam in a wheelchair – complained that a lack of toilet paper had forced him to use newspaper.
Yet Baltimore will take rats, roaches and leaky urinals over Walter Reed. In February 2007, The Washington Post published a series of reports on Walter Reed’s stained, moldy, cockroach-laden rooms and the cumbersome hospital bureaucracy.
Since those reports, significant progress has been made at the hospital. Reuters reports that immediate medical care for the troops at Walter Reed is “widely praised,” and that the staff-to-patient ratio has increased. Likewise, the dilapidated outpatient facilities proved relatively easy to fix.
But soldiers continue to find themselves bogged down in red tape and bureaucracy as they fight for disability claims. According to Reuters, “The Pentagon has started a pilot program to standardize and speed up disability evaluations. But its target of 245 days to complete the process still seems a long time to wait.”
Problems for veterans are not confined to Walter Reed. In the wake of the scandal, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley admitted, “What’s going on at Walter Reed in terms of the frustration of the staffs and the patients is probably mirrored to some extent in most of our other facilities.”
arine veteran Jonathan Schulze suffered depression and severe post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home from Iraq, where his unit lost 17 men. Jonathan turned to alcohol, drugs and, finally, the VA hospital in St. Cloud, Minn. Asked why he needed help, Jonathan said, “I feel suicidal.” He was given number 26 on the waitlist and, four days later, Jonathan hanged himself.
Jonathan’s circumstances weren’t exceptional. A RAND Corporation report released last April finds that 300,000 current and former service men “suffer from major depression or post-traumatic stress from serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Another major problem that plagues our veterans is homelessness.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs reports, “On any given day, as many as 250,000 veterans (male and female) are living on the streets or in shelters.” A similarly off-putting report finds that one-third of the U.S. adult homeless population served in the armed forces.
Veterans like Tom Ashley are all too common. Ashley served 20 years in the Navy in Vietnam, Africa, Nova Scotia and Europe. After a complicated custody lawsuit led to his disability and retirement checks being frozen, Ashley found himself on the street. A crippled leg prevents him from making the trip to the New York Avenue shelter regularly – so Ashley sleeps in McPherson Square. He fears for his life sleeping in the square after he woke up to the sight of a man hovering over him, smoking crack. His 20-year fight for survival in the Navy continues on the streets of downtown D.C.
Why are veterans like Jonathan Schulze and Tom Ashley not being given the treatment they deserve? The answer: money. Bob Filner, chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in October of 2007, “Each year we see VA struggling to do more and more with a budget that does not quite keep up.”
For Eashmon Baltimore, these words translate into another night with rats, roaches and leaky urinals alongside other veterans at the New York Avenue shelter; but, as he said, “Rather be here.”
Andrew Dubbins is a sophomore in the College. He can be reached at dubbinsthehoya.com. Breaking News appears every other Tuesday.
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