Mark, a veteran who shared his story with Native Sun News Today. Photo by Kimberly Greager

Native Sun News Today: Homeless veterans in South Dakota share their stories

A stain on America: The homeless veterans

By Kimberly Greager
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

Home of the brave, land of the free…we have all heard those words many times, but what do they really mean? Can America really call herself the “Home of the Brave” when so many of our veterans are homeless in her streets?

Even with the United States’ large military budget, we cannot seem to properly care for our veterans, and there is a huge gap in the need for services and the services that are provided. Veterans across the country talk of prolonged wait times to get appointments with the VA and to see doctors, inadequate administration and insufficient medical care providers. Many of these deficiencies lead to untreated disabilities and mental illnesses, both of which are huge contributing factors to homelessness among veterans.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study published in 2012 found that veterans are overrepresented among the homeless in the United States and are at greater risk than nonveterans of becoming homeless. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports that 51% of homeless veterans have disabilities and/or mental illnesses and that minorities are overrepresented in the homeless population.

According to the most recent data from the South Dakota Department of Veteran Affairs, there are 955 homeless people in South Dakota, and 550 of those are Native Americans. Of those 955 homeless, 130 are veterans, and of those 63 are Native American veterans. The VA has reported declining numbers among our homeless veterans over the last seven years, however, those reports and numbers are based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines and definitions of homelessness, which skew the actual numbers. Finding an accurate figure on the number of homeless veterans in our country is not an easy task.

According to a VA fact sheet dated October 2016, “Since 2010 the number of vets experiencing homelessness has decreased by nearly 50%.” The same fact sheet states that since 2010, “More than 480,000 vets have been permanently housed, rapidly rehoused or prevented from falling into homelessness by HUD’s targeted housing vouchers and VA homelessness programs.”

Ronald, a veteran in South Dakota. Photo by Kimberly Greager

Using these numbers, a person could reason that before 2010, there were a million (or more) homeless veterans in our country. Sadly, many of these homeless veterans are aging or elderly. A study completed in 2016 by the VA found that 54% of the homeless veterans surveyed were 45 to 60 years old, and 25% were older than 61 years old. With an already strained VA system and an aging veteran population, the future for some veterans may be uncertain at best.

The Cornerstone Rescue Mission in Rapid City houses an entire wing just for veterans, and though their VA funding was cut last month, they continue to meet essential needs for the homeless veterans in our community. Teena Conrad, the Mission’s veterans contact, says, “We treat them special. They need this space, this camaraderie. They’ve got an area where they can be with people who understand.”

Inside the separate and secure veterans wing, there are private dorm rooms with bunkbeds; a library area with books, cards and games; a kitchen area with a small fridge, microwave and coffee pot; a computer room with three computers, internet access and a printer; and a large TV room lined with two rows of recently donated recliners.

The Mission’s veterans program also helps veterans get to their VA, counseling and physical therapy appointments and provides case management services including assistance finding jobs and housing, and classes like life skills and art.

Native Sun News Today sat down with five of the veterans at the Mission to hear their stories.

Mark was an Army E5 SGT who enlisted in 1980 when he was 19 years old. When asked why he decided to enlist, he said, “My Grandfather was in the WWII Infantry and I grew up hearing stories…he lived through it and came home…And my uncles served in Vietnam and Korea, so I grew up with it. I was young, and I wanted to go and honor that uniform.”

He proudly spoke of his grandfather’s military experience; how he was denied by the Rangers because he did not have a son to carry on the family name, but was accepted into the Infantry. Two months after arriving in Korea, his grandfather was injured by two Japanese grenades, “He was point because he was Hispanic.” Mark said. Even as he was injured and fading in and out of consciousness, his grandfather continued to return fire. “To survive two Japanese grenades and still return fire, and take 10 or 15 of them out! He fought until he couldn’t. He was going unconscious, but he kept fighting. That’s why he got the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, and I buried them with him, in his dress uniform,” Mark said, wiping away a tear.

After joining the Army, Mark was stationed at a Special Forces base in the Philippine Islands to do police actions during political unrest until their election was over. During one of their patrols through the mountain villages, they came across a girl in labor and assisted in the delivery. His eyes misted over as he remembered that day. “I didn’t experience anything like Vietnam, those guys caught hell…but what we did, it was pretty cool…and then they brought the baby out,” he whispered. After that he was stationed in Okinawa and various places in Korea, mainly doing training exercises. Once he got out of the Army, Mark returned home to Denver, Colorado to work and be near family.

A series of injuries – including being shot in the head on Colfax Ave. in Denver in 1999 - left him disabled, suffering from PTSD and unable to work. Mark was unable to work, but more devastating to him was the loss of his ability to play the music that he loved so much. He said once that happened, he lost all motivation and began drinking heavily. After caring for his grandparents, he ended up in Belle Fourche with family friends, and came to Rapid City about a month ago. He said since coming to the veteran’s wing at the Mission, he is thinking more clearly than he has in 25 years and has a new outlook on life. He is even thinking about playing the guitar again.

Robert, a veteran in South Dakota. Photo by Kimberly Greager

Robert was born in Sturgis, South Dakota, and was a Navy E1 CB. While he was still a senior in high school he was drafted, “My draft number was One.” In 1972 he went to Puerto Rico to build naval bases, and from there he went to Diego Garcia to work on radar domes. After he was out of the service, he married Linda Joy Barber in 1975 and raised a step-daughter with her. He spoke fondly of his family and his wife, who suffered a stroke and passed away in November of 2000, and the renewal of their wedding vows on their 25th anniversary.

In June of 2000 Robert was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He said the last ten years have been hard for him. 100% disabled from the cancer and unable to work, yet unable to receive compensation from the military because his disabilities are non-service connected, he has had to rely on pension and social security to get by.

“I think that all veterans deserve more respect from their country than what we’ve been getting,” Robert said. “It’s easier for guys with service connected disabilities, it’s easier for them to get help. But like me, with non-service connected disabilities, it’s rough. And guys who didn’t serve enough time to get pension or anything, it’s rougher on them. There’s a lot of guys here because they can’t find jobs. If you can’t get a job, you can’t find a place.”

As someone who was used to working 60 hours a week at two jobs, not being able to work has been a difficult adjustment for Robert. He was staying with his stepdaughter in Sioux Falls until earlier this year when she had to move, then he came to Rapid City. He slept in his car until it got too cold, and has been staying in the veteran’s wing at the Mission for a month and a half. He smiled as he talked about getting the keys to his own place this week and moving in soon; his step-daughter helped him find housing and he is looking forward to spending his birthday, November 24th, in a place of his own.

James was an Army E3 who enlisted in the military hoping to straighten his life out. As a self-described wild child, he grew up in orphanages and foster homes and struggled with addiction to alcohol and drugs. “I was a kid and I was in trouble, and somebody told me maybe I should think about it [enlisting] …my buddy and I tried to go in on the buddy plan into the Marines, they took him, but the Marines wouldn’t take me…I had a few problems in life. But the Army ate me right up.”

Once out of the Army, James spent some time in prison in Arizona, and that is where he picked up a Bible and his life started to really straighten out. He came back to the Rapid City area in 2008 and worked at carpentry and landscaping in federal parks in the Black Hills and Wyoming. He was working in the Badlands when he started having some medical problems and is staying at the Mission for the extended treatments. This is James’ third or fourth time staying at the Mission, and he is grateful for the services they provide to veterans. “If it wasn’t for this place…,” he drifted off, shaking his head, and said, “Teena works her butt off for us guys.”


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A stain on America: The homeless veterans

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