Iraq War Vet clippings

More female veterans are winding up homeless
VA resources strained; many are single parents

WASHINGTON – The number of female service members who have become homeless after leaving the military has jumped dramatically in recent years, according to new government estimates, presenting the Veterans Administration with a challenge as it struggles to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

As more women serve in combat zones, the share of female veterans who end up homeless, while still relatively small at an estimated 6,500, has nearly doubled over the last decade, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

For younger veterans, it is even more pronounced: One out of every 10 homeless vets under the age of 45 is now a woman, the statistics show.

And unlike their male counterparts, many have the added burden of being single parents.

“Some of the first homeless vets that walked into our office were single moms,’’ said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “When people think of homeless vets, they don’t think of a Hispanic mother and her kids. The new generation of veterans is made up of far more women.’’

Overall, female veterans are now between two and four times more likely to end up homeless than their civilian counterparts, according to the VA, most as a result of the same factors that contribute to homelessness among male veterans: mental trauma related to their military service and difficulty transitioning into the civilian economy.

But while veterans’ services have been successfully reaching out to male veterans through shelters and intervention programs, women are more likely to fall through the cracks.

“While the overall numbers [of homeless vets] have been going down, the number of women veterans who are homeless is going up,’’ Peter Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a telephone interview.

The trend has alarmed top lawmakers and veterans groups, who fear that the federal government – which is already straining to care for new veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, and other physical ailments – is ill-prepared to deal with the special needs of female veterans who find themselves on the street.

Many of them are like Angela Peacock, a former Army sergeant who was diagnosed with PTSD when she returned from Iraq in 2004 and became addicted to pain-killers.

Later evicted from her apartment in Texas, she spent more than two years “couch-hopping’’ between friends and family before moving in as a squatter in an empty house in St. Louis.

“They could kick me out anytime they want,’’ Peacock said in an interview. “I have been clean for two and a half years and am working on getting my life back, but it doesn’t happen overnight.’’

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Washington, about 23 percent of the homeless population in the United States are veterans. Nearly half are from the Vietnam era and three-fourths experience some type of alcohol, drug, or mental heath problem.

Most of the homeless vets, who are estimated by the Veteran’s Administration to number at least 130,000 on any given night nationwide, are men older than 50.

With a new generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan leaving the armed forces, however, the demographics are swiftly changing. And with more women serving on active duty – a full 15 percent of the military is now female – the share of female homeless veterans has grown from about 3 percent a decade ago to 5 percent, according to the VA.

Among younger veterans, meanwhile, the share of women is nearly double, making up 9 percent of homeless veterans under the age of 45.

“There are twice as many under 45 than above,’’ said Dougherty, who is also the executive director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal government’s efforts to combat homelessness.

In recent days, senior members of Congress have called for an expansion of some of the VA’s programs to ensure they are properly suited to meeting the needs of the growing female population.

“Women veterans and veterans with children often have different needs and require specialized services,’’ Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat of Washington and a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former Army officer, also believes more women-focused veterans services are needed.

“We need to adapt services for our veterans to reflect this shift and provide more gender-specific resources, such as housing and counseling to prevent female veterans from becoming homeless,’’ Reed said.

For example, Rieckhoff, who served in Iraq before founding the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans group, said female veterans often face unique homelessness risk factors, including sexual assault while in the military and diminished earning potential in civilian life.

But he also believes that the culture of the VA is mostly geared toward meeting the needs of men.

“They are having a tough time evolving to meet the demands of women, who are at a higher risk for homelessness to begin with,’’ Rieckhoff said.

The Obama administration has taken some steps toward combating homelessness among all veterans, including allocating $75 million to public housing authorities in the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Guam to provide permanent housing and dedicated case managers for an estimated 10,000 veterans.

“For a woman veteran in particular, this is a way for them to have a place to live and not have to ditch the child while they take care of other needs that they have,’’ said Dougherty.

But Murray, Reed, and others say far more needs to be done, especially for homeless veterans with children.

They have sponsored legislation that calls for $50 million in extra funding over the next five years to allow the Veterans Affairs and Labor departments to make special grants to homeless veterans with children, including for transitional housing.

The legislation would also allow the Labor Department to fund facilities that provide job training and child care for female veterans.



Veterans Affairs Faces Surge of Disability Claims

He jumped at loud noises, had unpredictable flashes of anger and was constantly replaying battle scenes in his head. When Damian J. Todd, who served two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps, described those symptoms to a psychiatrist in January 2008, the diagnosis was quick: he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Less swift was the government’s response when Mr. Todd submitted, a month later, a disability claim that would entitle him to a monthly benefit check. Nearly 18 months went by before the Department of Veterans Affairs granted his claim late last month, Mr. Todd said.

Mr. Todd, 33, is part of a flood of veterans, young and old, seeking disability compensation from the department for psychological and physical injuries connected to their military service. The backlog of unprocessed claims for those disabilities is now over 400,000, up from 253,000 six years ago, the agency said.

The department says its average time for processing those claims, 162 days, is better than it has been in at least eight years. But it does not deny that it has a major problem, with some claims languishing for many months in the department’s overtaxed bureaucracy.

“There are some positive signs in terms of what we’re doing,” said Michael Walcoff, deputy under secretary for benefits in the Veterans Benefits Administration. “But we know that veterans deserve better.”

Mr. Walcoff said the department recently finished hiring 4,200 claims processors, but many will not be fully trained for months. The Government Accountability Office reported last year that the Veterans Affairs Department had about 13,000 people processing disability claims.

The larger significance of the backlog, veterans groups and officials said, is that resources for veterans are being stretched perilously thin by a confluence of factors beyond the influx of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Aging Vietnam veterans with new or worsening ailments are requesting care. Layoffs are driving unemployed veterans into the department’s sprawling health system for the first time. Congress has expanded certain benefits. And improved outreach efforts by the department have encouraged more veterans to seek compensation or care.

Mr. Walcoff said the vast majority of the 82,000 claims the department received each month were not from veterans returning from the current wars. “We’re still getting a lot of Vietnam vets,” he said.

Veterans advocates say the actual backlog is nearing one million, if minor claims, educational programs and appeals of denied claims are factored in. They point to the discovery last year of benefits applications in disposal bins at several department offices as evidence of shoddy handling of claims. And they assert that they routinely see frustratingly long delays on what seem like straightforward claims.

One group, Veterans for Common Sense, has obtained records showing that some veterans are calling suicide hotlines to talk about their delayed disability claims. The group has called on the department to replace processors who take exceedingly long to handle claims.

“We’re not saying vets are threatening to commit suicide over the claims issues,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of the group. “We’re saying V.A.’s claim situation is so bad that it is exacerbating veterans’ already difficult situations.”

The sprawling veterans compensation and pension system is expected to pay $44 billion in benefits to about three million people this year, the largest group of whom served during the Vietnam War.

Under the system, veterans who can demonstrate that a psychological or physical problem resulted from their military service are eligible for compensation and, if the injury is severe enough, free health care. (All new veterans are eligible for health care for five years after they leave service, regardless of whether they are injured.)

Compensation is scaled by the severity of the disability: a veteran with dependents who is rated 100 percent disabled, and therefore unable to work, is eligible for more than $3,000 a month.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has emerged as one of the most prevalent disability claims, after ailments like back pain and knee injuries. Not only are many new veterans receiving a diagnosis of the disorder, but an increasing number of Vietnam veterans are also reporting symptoms for the first time, officials and advocates said.

Delays in getting PTSD claims approved have prompted members of Congress to propose legislation that would reduce the documentation required to prove that a veteran’s disorder was caused by specific combat events. Finding such documentation can be difficult for Vietnam veterans, whose memories of events 40 years ago may have grown hazy. Records from that era are also often difficult to find, advocates said.

Veterans who did not serve in combat units but who may have been in firefights or witnessed traumatic events like roadside bombings — common events in Iraq and Afghanistan — also report difficulties documenting the sources of their disorder.

Those hurdles have added to the claims backlog, advocates said. Legislation proposed by Representative John Hall, Democrat of New York, would require the government to grant claims by veterans with the disorder once they demonstrated simply that they had served in a combat theater, which would include all of Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam.

The projected cost of the legislation, $4.7 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, has become a stumbling block. But Mr. Hall said the cost would be offset by the benefits of reducing the backlog, avoiding appeals of rejected claims and speeding compensation to veterans.

“We’ve got veterans sleeping under bridges or struggling to fit back in with their families or looking for jobs,” Mr. Hall said. “It’s no time to be messing around with compensation that we probably owe them and will probably pay them anyway.”

The legislation might have eased the process for Mr. Todd, who flew helicopters in Anbar Province for seven months in 2005 and then served 10 months with an infantry unit in Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold, in 2006 and 2007. He left the Marines in 2007 as a captain.

Many months after Mr. Todd received the PTSD diagnosis and first submitted his claim, the department asked him to document two stressful events that might have caused his trauma. For one, he described driving a girl to the hospital after she was torn apart by a bomb. She survived, but the memory still brings him to tears.

Now attempting to start his own business, Mr. Todd, who lives in Orange County, N.Y., said he would receive $770 a month for his disorder, as well as for shoulder, back, knee and hearing problems linked to his service.

“There are a lot of other kids who need the money more,” he said. “I just want the process to change, because it is ridiculous.”
Foreclosures in Military Towns Surge at Four Times U.S. Rate
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According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Washington, about 23 percent of the homeless population in the United States are veterans. Nearly half are from the Vietnam era and three-fourths experience some type of alcohol, drug, or mental heath problem.

May 27 (Bloomberg) — U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant Jeffrey VerSteegh, who repairs F-16 jets for the 132nd Fighter Wing, departed Des Moines, Iowa, in April for his third tour in Iraq. The father of four may lose his home when he returns.

The four-bedroom farmhouse he and his wife, Kathleen, own near the Iowa State Fairgrounds went into default in December after their monthly mortgage costs doubled to $1,100. Kathleen missed work because of breast cancer and they struggled to keep up the house payment, falling behind on other bills. Their bankruptcy was approved by the court a week after VerSteegh left for Iraq.

In the midst of the worst surge in mortgage defaults in seven decades, foreclosures in U.S. towns where soldiers live are increasing at a pace almost four times the national average, according to data compiled by research firm RealtyTrac Inc. in Irvine, California. As military families like the VerSteeghs signed up for the initial lower rates and easier terms of subprime mortgages, the number of people taking out Veterans Administration loans fell to the lowest in at least 12 years.

“We’ve never faced a situation like this, not in the Vietnam War, World War II, or the Korean War, where so many military are in danger of losing their homes,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a Washington-based advocacy group started in 2002 by Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. “No one asked them for their credit score when we asked them to fight for us.”

Military Foreclosures

Foreclosure filings in 10 towns and cities within 10 miles of military facilities, including Norfolk, Virginia, home of the Navy’s largest base, rose by an average 217 percent from January through April from a year earlier. Nationally, the rate was 59 percent in the same period, according to RealtyTrac, which tallies bank seizures, auctions and default notices.

The biggest surge was in Columbia, South Carolina, home to Fort Jackson, where the Army trains recruits for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Properties in some stage of foreclosure rose 492 percent from a year earlier, RealtyTrac said. The second-biggest increase was 414 percent in Woodbridge, Virginia, next to the Marine Corps Base Quantico.

Foreclosure filings tripled in the cities surrounding Norfolk Naval Base and the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base near Oceanside, California, RealtyTrac said. Havelock, North Carolina, site of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, saw foreclosures more than double.

Weak Credit

Military families were targeted as customers during the boom in subprime lending because their frequent moves, overseas stints, and low pay meant they were more likely to have weak credit ratings, said Rudi Williams of the National Veterans Foundation in Los Angeles. In 2006, at the peak of U.S. subprime lending, the number of VA loans fell to barely a third the level of two years earlier, according to VA data.

VA loans totaled 135,000 last year, its fourth consecutive annual decline.

An Army or Marine Corps sergeant with four years of experience makes $27,000 a year, plus combat pay of $225 a month, according to the 2008 Military Authorization Act, which increased basic pay rates 3.5 percent from a year ago.

Soldiers authorized to live off-base also receive a housing allowance that this year starts at about $500 a month, 7.3 percent higher than in 2007, paid even when they are deployed. Counting the stipends, they still fall short of the 2007 median U.S. household income of $59,224 as measured by the National Association of Realtors in Chicago.

Legislative Effort

“Think about how much stress comes with a foreclosure, and then imagine you’re walking the same tightrope while being employed in Baghdad,” said Paul Rieckhoff, 33, the head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a former 1st lieutenant with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.

The Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act protects soldiers and sailors from losing homes for nonpayment of mortgages only while on active duty and for 90 days after they return home. Members of Congress, including Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, and Representative Bob Filner, a Democrat from California, are trying to extend that to a year, saying three months isn’t enough.

Another flaw in the current law is it puts the burden on the soldiers, sailors or the families they left behind to come up with the paperwork and notify the bank, said Sullivan of the Washington Veterans’ group. Unlike in other wars, members of the military often are able to telephone home or receive e-mails, creating a “morale problem” as they try to deal with foreclosure notices, he said.

VA Mortgages

“It’s heartbreaking to see people struggling with a foreclosure while they or someone they love is in a war zone, or when they’re trying to adjust after coming back from one,” said Sullivan, a Cavalry Scout with the Army’s 1st Armored Division during the 1991 Gulf War.

Lenders aren’t required to keep records on the status of non-government loans to military members or veterans, said Mike Frueh, the VA’s assistant director for loan management in Washington. Judging solely by data on VA mortgages, active military and veterans in the current housing slump are getting into trouble with their home loans at a pace only slightly above the civilian rate, he said.

The share of VA mortgages in foreclosure was 1.12 percent in the fourth quarter, compared with 0.96 percent for so-called prime borrowers with the highest credit scores, the Washington- based Mortgage Bankers Association said in a March 6 report.

`Stench of Death’

“My data comes from those that have VA loans, and we haven’t seen, as I understand it, a big jump” in foreclosures, said James Peake, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Washington, in a May 20 interview.

The increase may yet be coming: the share of VA loans with payments 30 days or more overdue was 6.49 percent in the fourth quarter, double the rate of 3.24 percent for prime borrowers. The share of VA mortgages more than 90 days overdue was 1.54 percent, also double the prime rate, according to the bankers’ report.

Monique Kelly, a disabled Iraq War veteran, said she is on the verge of adding to those VA delinquency numbers. The former Army staff sergeant in the First Armored Division paid her May mortgage bill halfway through the month and said she won’t be able to make June’s payment for her house in Owings Mills, Maryland.

Kelly, designated disabled by the VA because of post- traumatic stress disorder, said she bought the property in January for $305,000 and had to spend $10,000 fixing structural problems that were not disclosed to her.

“We fought for our country, and now we have to fight to save our homes,” said Kelly. “After living with the stench of death in Iraq, it seems like we shouldn’t have to face problems like this when we come back.”

Help for Veterans

The VA has nine regional loan centers in the U.S. that last year provided counseling for 85,000 veterans who had problems with government-backed mortgages, Frueh said. He said he contacted Kelly to see if he can help her.

Counselors also try to help veterans who fall behind on non- VA loans, he said, though they don’t track the number of those cases.

“We will always try to intercede on a veteran’s behalf,” said Frueh. “If they have a VA-guaranteed loan, we can do more for them.”

Military families or veterans refinancing a mortgage have limited resources for VA-backed loans, Frueh said. The government can only guarantee refinanced veteran loans up to $144,000, Frueh said. The median price of a U.S. home was $219,000 last year, according to the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors.

`No Hope’

The law gives military personnel the right to have interest rates temporarily lowered to 6 percent on loans incurred prior to entering active service. To apply for protection, they have to send copies of their military orders to their mortgage servicing companies, even if they are on the front lines. The VerSteeghs in Iowa didn’t know about that option, said Kathleen.

Before leaving for Iraq, the 43-year-old VerSteegh called the Bush Administration’s Hope Now program created to help people facing foreclosure, his wife said.

“We got no hope from Hope,” and no information about the potential interest-rate deduction, according to Kathleen VerSteegh.

San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co., the servicer of the VerSteegh mortgage, removed the VerSteegh property from foreclosure in April after receiving a copy of the husband’s active duty orders, said Debora Blume, a spokeswoman for the bank’s mortgage unit, in an e-mailed statement. Kathleen VerSteegh, 42, said they weren’t notified of the change. The mortgage had gone into foreclosure on Dec. 31, Wells Fargo said.

Refinancing Plans

Wells Fargo “is working with Mrs. VerSteegh to reduce her monthly payment during this time of financial hardship,” Blume said.

Like many U.S. borrowers who got adjustable mortgages, the VerSteeghs planned to refinance into a better loan before their initial rate of 6.45 percent, fixed for two years, reset in December 2006. U.S. home values began to decline about six months before their first adjustment.

The so-called margin, a fixed charge added to the loan’s index to determine interest rate resets, is 5.25 percent, about double the typical margin for an adjustable mortgage. Their loan is indexed to Libor, the London Interbank Offer Rate.

“We refinanced so we could get new windows and do some work on the house,” she said. “We assumed we’d have no problem getting another loan, but then it blew up in our faces.”

Now they can’t apply to refinance into a VA mortgage because they owe more on the house than it’s worth and “our credit is shot,” said VerSteegh.

Bonus Army

The last time veterans lost homes to this extent was during the Great Depression, said Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense. The so-called Bonus Army of almost 20,000 World War I ex-soldiers marched on Washington in June 1932 to demand early payment of certificates granted for service.

U.S. infantry and cavalry regiments under the command of General Douglas MacArthur attacked their encampment with bayonets and sabers to disburse them.

VerSteegh, who gets to speak to her husband by telephone for 15 minutes once a week, said she tries to reassure him that everything on the home front is going well, even as she struggles with the threat of foreclosure and her health problems. She’s eight weeks into a course of chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer and had a double mastectomy on March 14.

VerSteegh said she doesn’t know exactly where her husband is, just that he’s somewhere near Baghdad.

“I don’t tell him the whole story, because he has to focus on his job,” she said. “The guys in his unit are depending on him.”

Foreclosure Filings Near Military Bases from January to
April, Compared With a Year Earlier:
Columbia, South Carolina: 492%
Woodbridge, Virginia: 414%
Triangle, Virginia: 363%
Oceanside, California: 182%
Norfolk, Virginia: 155%
Havelock, North Carolina: 133%
Carlsbad, California: 131%
Barstow, California: 120%
Columbus, Georgia: 102%
Twentynine Palms, California: 73%
U.S. Total: 59%


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