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Help on the ground: a local perspective

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Framed prominently on the wall behind Tom Cray's desk is an excerpt from Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried. The quotation describes what Vietnam soldiers carried, ranging from the mundane to the monumental, the literal to the figurative:

"They were afraid of dying, but too afraid to show it. They carried the emotional baggage of men and women who might die at any moment. They carried the weight of the world."

Cray knows a thing or two about the burdens soldiers carry. He served two tours with the Navy in Vietnam, and ever since his return, he's devoted himself to helping other veterans. Most of his time has been spent at the Veteran's Outreach Center at 457 South Avenue (546-4250 or 546-1081), where he now serves as president. It's the oldest continuously operating community-based outreach center in the nation, and Cray was there for its inception in 1973. Along the way, he's watched the center shift as it tried to adapt to the needs the people it serves.

Cray remembers early failures, like job training and other practical services that didn't seem to stick. Veterans would participate for a while then drop out of the program only to wind up back on his doorstep months later, no better off than before.

"That wasn't what they needed," he says of the training. "It wasn't that they needed a job or they needed a training program. They needed to come to terms with their war experiences in here and up here," he says, gesturing to his heart and his head.

Following is an edited transcript of a recent conversation with Cray:

City:Tell me what it was like in 1973 that made you see the need for this kind of center.

Cray: This organization was essentially a part of the city of Rochester. The mayor at the time, Steve May, was approached by the National League of Cities' US Conference of Mayors. They were developing programs like this across the country. There were 10 of them that they had developed, and Rochester was the eleventh to be developed. Those other programs have since gone. They've died out.

The fact of the matter is somebody in the government realized that Vietnam veterans were so turned off by what was going on for them in the Vietnam War --- a significant number of them, not necessarily all --- and they were not utilizing the services the VA was supposed to be providing. And the VA really had no outreach effort and had really not integrated itself into the traditional mental-health community. Everybody then, as well as now, assumes that when these men and woman come home it is going to be the VA that takes care of them; it is going to be the federal government.

When are people gonna get the message? The VA cannot take care of all these men and women immediately upon their return.

City:Why do you say that?

Cray: Number one, their capacity. They do not have the capacity; they are not geared up for it. VA employees have said it themselves.

And these aren't just men and women who were in the military who come back home. These are husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.

How are the courts prepared to deal with these men and women who have served many months, if not more than a year, in combat every day to the extent that they can't really cope with normal living and they end up in the criminal-justice system? Are the lawyers prepared to deal with it? Are the homeless shelters prepared to receive them and understand what it is they're going through? Are the hospitals? Are the emergency rooms? Are all of the doctors? Are the law enforcement officials? Are they prepared to respond and react to these men and women?

City:I sense your answer is that they are not.

Cray: They are not even aware, let alone prepared.

How about the gentleman or the woman who has come back from Iraq and is in his or her car, and goes down the street and is focused on the vehicle in front of them, the light turns red and they go right through the red light? Because in Mosul or Fallujah, they're not stopping for red lights. If you stop for a red light, you get ambushed. So the conditioning is there, and the conditioning results in typical behavior. And running that red light creates an accident and someone gets hurt.

The public doesn't follow through on the thinking. They think: They served they're home, if they need help they'll go to the VA, they'll get the help and everything will be fine. End of story.

That's not what happens.

These are long-term issues. There are men and women from the Vietnam War who are still working through their issues. The war ended in '75.

City:Do you see similarities between where we are now and where we were 30 years ago?

Cray: Yes. There was growing resentment about the Vietnam War year after year after year. I can tell you who caught the brunt of that: the veterans coming home from Vietnam. Significant segments of this country turned on them. They blamed them for the outcome of the war. They blamed them for the atrocities. They blamed them for the killing. That should never happen. Never. It makes no difference to me personally whether you're for or against it; it makes no difference to me whether people believe it's good or bad, whether it's won or lost.

City:Do you think the public has learned from the lack of acceptance of Vietnam vets?

Cray: I think in fact they have learned a very valuable lesson. I really believe they know it's not the sole responsibility of the men and women who are fighting in Southwest Asia --- the war is not their responsibility and it is not their fault. I would hope that people have learned. And if they haven't then maybe they'll read the articles that are coming out in the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and City Newspaper. Maybe they'll read these articles and they'll become educated to that.

City:How many Iraq vets have you seen coming through the center?

Cray: I've met probably six or seven personally, and I don't meet them all. We are seeing a number of them and we'll see more.

City:How many people from this area are over in Iraq or have served there during the course of this conflict?

Cray: There are about 1,000 that we know of from the greater metropolitan area, which is really who we serve, Rochester and the five surrounding counties.

City:Do you think their needs, especially in terms of mental health, are being met?

Cray: Not yet. They have not been met yet.

City:What else needs to be done?

Cray: There will be an educational process and we need to be a part of that here. We need to work with the traditional mental-health providers and help them understand how to become aware of an individual who is home from Iraq and explain to them the symptoms they should look for if these individuals are coming and seeking help. And if they don't know how to do it, then call us. So it's preparedness. We have to educate first. We have to engage them in helping these men and women, and that job's not done yet.

City:How do you go about serving veterans?

Cray: The same way we did 30 years ago. We go out and find these men and women. We go to all the public gathering places, we go to malls, we go to pool halls, we go to bars, we go to employment offices, unemployment offices. We go to shelters. That's what it's all about: finding them. You find them, you offer them some sort of assistance, you bring them in here, you assess their needs, you help them help themselves, and then you manage their care. That's not easy.

Sometimes you've got to just grab them by the hand, walk them through the tunnel, and bring them out the other side. That's provided you can get to them in time, because if you look at Vietnam veterans, more committed suicide then whose names are on the wall in Washington, DC. In [a recent New York Times] article it explained that one already hung himself. That should never happen. Men and women who serve in combat should never find themselves so hopelessly helpless that suicide becomes the alternative. We spend billions on war, and we should be prepared to spend an equal amount on treatment for those who fight.

City:Despite all of your efforts, and despite the efforts of other groups, do you feel there are people still falling through the cracks?

Cray: Yes.

City:Why does that happen?

Cray: There could be a variety of reasons: They never believe that they can get well. They never apply the coping mechanisms we teach them how to use. They don't know how to take that experience and turn it around and make it a positive. Eventually what happens is they lose hope and they lose faith and they turn to alcohol or substances or crime and they eventually end up homeless.

Some take their lives and some just remain hopeless and helpless, and homeless. And some end up in prison. You've got about 220,000 who are in federal and state prison across the country. You've got anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 veterans who are homeless, and they're already seeing Iraq veterans in the homeless shelters. Male veterans are twice as likely to become homeless as their non-veteran male counterparts somewhere within the 12-year period subsequent to their military service. Female veterans are four times as likely as their female non-veteran counterparts to become homeless. And the VA admits that they are able to serve somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 homeless veterans a year out of the 500,000 that are on the streets.

And that's not to cast aspersions. They have 4 million phone calls they have to work with every year. There are 364,000 letters that they have to deal with every year. They have an average of 300,000 new claims at any given time in the course of a year. There's a waiting period for the rating of the claim of at least 160 days, that's the backlog. I think 160,000 veterans have come home from the Iraq War, of which roughly 22,000 of them, maybe 24,000, have filed claims. That's just the beginning. They've filed claims, they haven't sought treatment.

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