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Gary Younge
No home fit for heroes

So Herold joined the army. "The army offered me a better life," he says. It was his passport out of the ghetto. He signed up in September 2000, "to check it out". "I didn't really expect to be in a war before I joined, but when Bush came to office, I knew there would be one."

Sure enough, in January 2003, Herold went to the Middle East and eventually to Iraq, where he worked as a fuel handler. He didn't think much of the politics involved in his mission. "I let the politicians handle that." To the extent that he did think about it, his views did not go beyond basic revenge for the terrorist attacks of September 11. "My views were, we're fighting for our country, because they're bombing our country. We're going to go and fuck these guys up, because they fucked up our country. I was fighting for our freedom."

But in August 2003, Herold returned to the US to find the personal dream he had been struggling for more elusive than ever. Herold had gone abroad to fight for his country and came back to find he was homeless. First he went to shelters, but he had his war medals stolen and felt harassed. By the middle of January, the 25-year-old father of four found a place to sleep not behind a white picket fence but in the back of his red 1994 Jeep Cherokee. He had sent three of his children to live with their grandmother in Florida. Meanwhile, his wife and toddler son were poised to join him in the car. The sister-in-law with whom they had been staying was about to move to a smaller apartment. "Now I'm fighting a different kind of war, but it's still a war for survival," Herold says.

Two years into the war in Iraq, and a growing number of isolated cases such as Herold's have emerged of US veterans from the war on terror returning home to a life of virtual destitution. So far, the numbers are small. A couple of dozen unemployed veterans enrolling in a job-training programme at a New England shelter for homeless veterans; three men seeking help in Ohio; a handful showing up in a survey in Minnesota; 30 looking for assistance at the Black Veterans for Social Justice Centre in Brooklyn.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the total is 67 nationwide. That figure amounts to a small fraction of the 130,000 who have already served and come home. And yet those who work with homeless veterans already see this as a terrible sign. "We fear that we are going to see this big wave," says Linda Boone, director of the National Coalition For Homeless Veterans. "It's too early for that yet, but it could happen. People have these yellow ribbons saying Support The Troops. They support them when they're in the war, but it's when they take off the uniform that things get bad."

Nicole Goodwin, 24, found herself shuttling her one-year-old daughter Shylah between New York's homeless shelters last year after she returned from Iraq. "I thought my story was one in a million," she says. "But it's not. There are around 40 in New York alone; we're pushing for a congressional hearing."

Dan Louhous, director of Special Projects Veterans Affairs at Ohio Valley Goodwill, says the worst is yet to come. "It hasn't been dramatic up to this point, because it's just beginning. We haven't learned a damned thing since Vietnam."

"A true war story is never moral," wrote Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried, his book about Vietnam. "If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie ... You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever."

Herold describes his experience in Iraq as "a living hell" that shows little sign of ending. "We saw dead bodies everywhere. People walked over dead bodies like they weren't there. Women and children played with AK-47s. When you see a crowd in Iraq, you know that something bad's going to happen when the sun goes down."

More than once, something bad nearly did happen to Herold. One time, he was filling a fuel tank when he came under fire. The tank fell on its side. It would have taken one good shot to pierce the tank and blow him up. "I couldn't see anything. One of the other soldiers broke my window and got me out of there. I thought I wasn't going to see my kids or nothing. I went through all that. I got religious over there. I thought somebody's got to be looking out for me."

Now Herold finds riding the subway difficult because he can't be around a lot of people. "I was a happy-go-lucky person. Now I'm angry and agitated. I get angry quick. I have bad dreams. I started hearing kids crying. I hear a lot of screaming, like there's a riot going on."

Vietnam hangs heavy on the American psyche. It is the moral weight against which any military adventure is measured: a flexible fable used as often by those who support war as by those who oppose it. Military veterans comprise 9% of the overall population and 23% of the homeless. Most of those are from the Vietnam era, but on average they did not become homeless until they had been back home from Vietnam for between nine and 12 years. That was how long it often took for the mental health problems to take their toll in the loss of family, job and home. It is also why providers of services believe the early trickle of homeless veterans from the Iraq war could presage something far more dramatic.

The legacy of Vietnam shapes the public response to troops and veterans. Conscious that conscripted soldiers paid the price for a political mistake 35 years ago, Americans hold the troops sacrosanct - and this regardless of their politics. The nation is split over the war in Iraq, but the metallic yellow ribbons saying Support The Troops give no indication of whether a person is for or against the war.

When Herold and Nicole's stories became public last year, the response was breathtaking. New York Times readers offered Nicole rooms in their homes, baby supplies and pledges of more than $17,000. A woman in California sent a cheque for $10, to be used for "a better life"; an anonymous donor sent a cheque for $1,000, with a note that said, "You risked your life in Iraq for your country ... for all of us." Nicole was also offered a $12-an-hour job by a community housing company, which she took so that she could rent a one-room apartment in Harlem from the Coalition for the Homeless.

When Herold explained his situation on the radio, a caller offered him a job - he declined, saying that campaigning for veterans' housing is his job. A couple of weeks later, Herold was given $18,500 and an apartment in the Bronx big enough to reunite his family. He accepted.

So long as the homeless veterans are few, such kindness from strangers is possible. But a recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that 15%-17% of veterans from Iraq meet "the screening criteria for major depression, generalised anxiety or PTSD". Of those, just 23%-40% are looking for help. Add mental illness to poor education and poverty, and many returning vets find themselves, like most of America's working poor, just one routine mishap away from destitution - medical bills for an unexpected illness, an inescapable repair to a house or harsh weather blocking your way to work.

In Herold's case, he was living in Georgia waiting to re-enlist in the army when his car engine blew up. Living in a place where you needed a car to get around, Herold had a tough choice: "It cost $2,500 to mend it, and I didn't have no $2,500. So it was either pay rent or get the car fixed. I had to pay the rent, but then we both lost our jobs because we didn't have a car. That's how come I came to New York with no job and no home."

Like Herold, Nicole has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Like Herold, she has yet to receive any state benefits. Nicole, who went to the same high school as former secretary of state Colin Powell, became homeless last year after she fell out with her mother. Given the living conditions, it was not surprising. She came back from Iraq to a two-bedroom flat in the projects that served as home to her mother, her two sisters, a four-year old nephew, Nicole and her daughter Shylah. It took a week for the situation to deteriorate to the point where she and her mother could not share the same roof. "It wasn't any one thing," she says. "Just the same old same old."

After a spell in shelters, she now has a place in Harlem. When I arrived, Nicole apologised for the mess. A smart young woman with plans to go to university and study political science and journalism, Nicole's outlook on life is generally upbeat. "They throw you a lot of lemons and you have to make lemonade," she says. But since her return, she's had trouble sleeping and is struggling to cope. Sometimes she feels numb. Walking down the street with Shylah recently, she almost got hit by a car. "I felt nothing," she says. "The only thought in my head was that people die every day. In Iraq, there were so many situations that you couldn't help that I just got used to feeling that way. The worst thing wasn't the war, it was coming back, because nobody understood why I was the way I was."

The government body that is supposed to deal with these issues is the Veterans' Association. But the VA is hopelessly overstretched, capable of helping just 100,000 of the 500,000 homeless veterans each year. And they can hope for little improvement. Recently the Bush administration offered generous benefits to those who died in battle, including an increase from $12,420 to $100,000 to the families of fallen soldiers, plus an extra $150,000 in life insurance. But for the living there were cuts in the number of nursing care beds and plans to charge wealthier veterans with non-service related problems an annual fee and double their prescription payments.

"Congress has gone too far in expanding military retiree benefits," David Chu, a defence under- secretary, told the Wall Street Journal in February. He went on to say the growth in veterans' benefits was "starting to crowd out two things: first, our ability to reward the person who is bearing the burden right now in Iraq or Afghanistan ... (second) we are undercutting our ability to finance the new gear that is going to make that military person successful, five, 10, 15 years from now." It's an analysis that conflicts with the way Americans like to think about themselves.

America's Promise is a standard history textbook, used by many of the nation's high-school students, which tells the story of the country from the ice age to the present day. At the end of 690 pages detailing, among other things, the genocide of the native Americans, slavery, segregation, Vietnam, Watergate, the final paragraph reads: "The history of the United States is one of challenges faced, problems resolved and crises overcome. Throughout their history Americans have remained an optimistic people, carrying this optimism into the new century. The full promise of America has yet to be realised. This is the real promise of America; the ability to dream of a better world to come."

It is difficult to overstress just how deeply ingrained this belief goes. The US is the only country in the world where (apart from a few years in the mid-1970s) people consistently believe that the next year will be better than the current one. To many US citizens, America is synonymous with "freedom", "democracy" and "opportunity". These are the ideals that many believe the nation is exporting to the Middle East in the present war; they are also the ideals that many believe they are defending at home.

Nicole and Herold were no different. As they talk about why they went to war and what they think of it now, they will waver between nationalistic pride and disappointment. Pride in what they believe America should be; disappointment in what it has actually been for them. Both volunteered for the army for their own particular reasons, but they were, in essence, conscripted by poverty. "I did it to get away from all the negativity in my life," says Nicole. "I didn't think I was going to get involved in a war. I didn't have a sense of direction and I thought the army would give me that."

Nicole is part of a trend that has seen a huge increase in minority women serving in the US army in noncombat roles. Black women, who comprise only 16% of the civilian population, now outnumber white in the army. "A survey of the American military's endlessly compiled and analysed demographics paints a picture of a fighting force that is anything but a cross-section of America," wrote the New York Times last year. "With minorities over-represented and the wealthy and the underclass essentially absent."

Both Herold and Nicole say they could not dwell on the rights or wrongs of this particular war. They were soldiers and this was their job. But events over the past few years have forced them to rethink. "There's not a day goes by that I don't ask myself what was I fighting for," says Nicole. "There were no WMD. We were lied to, and it hurts me to think I went there for somebody's lie."

Herold thinks the war was primarily about money. "I thought I was fighting for a better world," he says. "I thought I was fighting so my kids and maybe their kids could go to Iraq on vacation if they wanted to. But if you're fighting this war for your own personal gain, that's another thing. If you're fighting for world peace, then I agree with it. It looks like we're fighting for somebody else's pocket. So that Halliburton can get rich."

Yet neither the meagre opportunities that forced them to join the army nor the dire conditions of their return can undermine their investment in the very American dream that progress and individual success are, if not inevitable, then universally possible. "I saw Jay-Z [the rap star] going to these beautiful places, and I believe that if Jay-Z could come out of the ghetto, then I could come out of the ghetto," says Herold.

Nicole goes further. "The ideals of this country are that anybody could come back to America and make a better life for yourself. It's a land of opportunity. In this country alone, if you put forth the effort, you can bear fruit."

Squaring these mantras with their material conditions, however, is becoming increasingly difficult. They are caught between a need to believe in America's Promise and the realisation that in some way it has failed to deliver. Abandoned by institutional indifference, but rescued by individual generosity, they remain intensely patriotic, though their understanding of what that means has shifted subtly. "I was fighting for freedom for the Iraqi people," says Herold, " but I never had that decent life myself."

"I think it's ironic that I could go and fight for freedom abroad and cannot find this kind of freedom in my own city," says Nicole. "What America thinks of as freedom and what I think of as freedom are two different things. I want to get a house, day care and go to school. My freedoms are small. But I can't give up," she adds. "That's what I learned when I was getting shot at - if millions of Iraqis couldn't stop me, my own country's not going to stop me."

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