Many soldiers leave one war only to find another waiting for them at home.

Veteran Michael Holtzman didn’t realize he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder until he tried to kill himself last year.

Holtzman, 49, of Florida, tried to drown himself in a lake while homeless and visiting his mother in SJ. It had been a particularly rough time. The economy was harsh, and Holtzman’s son was on his third tour of duty in Iraq. He had also lost his license and livelihood as a result of a drunk-driving accident. Fortunately, a fellow veteran caught him in the act and called for help, saving his life.

After a number of months of intensive treatment, Holtzman was admitted to Veterans Haven, a residential program in Winslow Township for homeless veterans. While living in the transitional housing complex on the grounds of Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, he holds a job, saves money for the future and regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings while receiving treatment for his post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was through therapy that he realized that many of the demons he suffered as an adult could be traced to trauma from combat so long ago.

Michael Holtzman served in the U.S. Navy from 1978 to 1982

Michael Holtzman served in the U.S. Navy from 1978 to 1982

“I came to find out that my alcohol dependency was self-medication,” says Holtzman, who served on a submarine in the U.S Navy from 1978 to 1982. “On the medicine, I don’t have the nightmares anymore. I don’t have the screaming. This was a wake-up call. Before this, I didn’t know there was any help out there.”

While many troops returning home from their service are able to adjust to civilian life, for some, the residual emotional and psychological effects of war lead to unfortunate circumstances. For those suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury (TBI) – often caused by exposure to blasts – lack of treatment could lead to a downward spiral involving drug dependency, alcoholism, domestic violence, and eventually, suicide or homelessness.

According to a recently released report from the U.S. Government, unemployment among veterans is more than double the general population. Veterans are also more than 50 percent more likely to be homeless compared to all Americans. In New Jersey alone, the homeless veterans’ population is estimated at 7,000 to 8,000. And while the government keeps no official tally of veteran suicides, the Veterans Administration last year said that veterans account for roughly 20 percent of the estimated 30,000 suicides annually in the United States.

The U.S. government has tried to make housing for homeless veterans a national priority in recent years. Since 2008, the Department of Housing and Urban Development – Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program has received $75 million annually to place up to 10,000 homeless veterans in public housing while also giving them clinical services and other help.

Plus, President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget proposes a nearly $580 million increase in homeless assistance funding for HUD to support community-based organizations, which are places many troubled veterans come to for aid. However, the fate of this initiative and others is still up in the air as lawmakers continue to hash out the nation’s 2012 spending plan.

On the state level, SJ veterans may soon have a VA hospital of their own. A task force was recently formed to study and make recommendations on how to build and operate a veterans’ healthcare facility in Southern New Jersey. While the VA provides services in Camden, Ventnor, Cape May and Vineland, these clinics only perform some outpatient medical services and are often overwhelmed by the large numbers seeking care. For mental health needs, local veterans typically visit the Philadelphia VA hospital.

And while SJ organizations have seen an increase in funding for valuable programs that help troubled veterans, experts say much more is needed.

“Currently we are involved in two wars where the combat is intense,” says Derry Holland, vice president of Adult Community Services for Family Service, a private non-profit organization in Burlington County with mental health and wellness programs.

“There are going to be more and more veterans coming home, or who already are home and struggling. They’re struggling with employment, housing, alcohol and drug addiction. They could be struggling to keep their family together and are anxious about that too. They need supportive services to work through their issues.”

On a given day, 11 percent of the 2,200 people seen by Family Service are veterans, says Holland. They’re involved in adult case management services, outpatient counseling, partial- care programs and supportive housing. One exemplary program called Courage to Change, for example, provides treatment for adults living with a serious mental illness and chemical addiction. It offers specialized group therapy, individual counseling and on-site AA/Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Family Service is also tied to Veterans Haven, says Holland. In 2008 the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the NJ Purchase Bureau awarded the organization a three-year, $1.5 million dollar contract to fund the program’s services.

Another mental health services group based in Burlington County – The Lester A. Drenk Behavioral Center – has also been able to help veterans as a result of recent funding increases. In July, Drenk was awarded more money specifically to help homeless veterans in its federally funded Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH). The money was used to recruit Jose Bracera, a social worker who is also an Army veteran, to connect the many veterans in the state with much-needed services.

So many veterans need help, you would think linking veterans to services would be easy, but it’s compli-cated, says Dawn Reinhardt-Wood, director of adult case management services at the Drenk Center. Just finding clients in need can be a challenge, she says, as many homeless veterans live in the margins: in cars, woods, seedy motels or even camped out on Route 13. They include men and women. And, more and more, their issues include sexual traumatization.

“We don’t know if it’s really an increase in occurrences or that we’re getting better at asking the questions,” says Reinhardt-Wood. “And it’s not only females who are traumatized but also males imposed upon by other male soldiers.”

Reinhardt-Wood expresses concern about the increasing number of  veterans who need services and the lack of programs and funding available to help. “There is definitely a chasm between returning vets’ needs versus what’s available to them,” she says.

She points out that PATH’s Bracera is the sole person on the streets reaching out to hurting veterans in all of Burlington County. “Absolutely, it is just a drop in the bucket. I can only imagine there are thousands more awaiting such services.”

Sometimes, when Bracera connects with a veteran, there are some who turn him down. Bracera does not push because the veterans may not be ready for help.

“They have their own personal reasons,” says Bracera, of Camden.

Len Altamura, director of the Steininger Behavioral Care Services in Camden, says it’s common that veterans do not want to link their current problems with their experiences in the military.

“Often, veterans do not want to make that connection,” says Altamura, who served as a social worker in the Army during the Vietnam era. “It’s part of the emotional process that they’re not going to blame the war. They don’t want to admit it.”

Altamura estimates that between 5 to 8 percent of some 7,500 people who come through Steininger are veterans.

At the crisis center, they are stabilized and referred for care.

“We would prefer them to indicate if their crisis is military driven, but often they don’t. They’ll say it’s a result of a lost job, stress at home or at work. They don’t connect it with their military service.”

When homeless veterans are ready to commit to reclaiming their lives, there’s Veterans Haven. To be admitted into this state-run facility, which sits halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, the veterans must agree to a long-term program focusing on psychological, social and vocational rehabilitation. Random drug and alcohol testing is a way of life here. Violators are immediately discharged.

Within 60 days of their arrival, the veterans must secure a job and contribute up to 30 percent of their pay to help defray costs. They can stay up to two years. During that time, they are required to attend a variety of support meetings designed to prepare them for reentry into the workforce and to deal with vocational and life issues, including anger management, health issues and money management. Staff includes social workers, a 24-hour onsite nurse and vocational counselors. Dormitory-style rooms are small but private. The veterans share a common latrine, just like they did during their service days.

So far, 76 percent of the program’s former clients have returned to productive, self-sustaining lives. Its 54 beds are usually all in use. In July, the program will add 46 new dorm rooms in a newly constructed building on the same grounds. The $5.4 million project was funded through the federal government. The New Jersey American Legion raised an additional $160,000 to furnish rooms. It was the largest amount of money ever raised by an American Legion chapter worldwide, according to Commander Bob Looby.

For Michael Holtzman, his stay there is the chance to get his life back in order. While he works at K-Mart in Berlin as an associate, he’s paying off his fines and saving money to head back to Florida, where he has worked as a professional driver for Florida sports teams. While grateful for this chance to rebuild, he says the hardest part for him is being so far from family and friends. He hasn’t seen his three children in two years but talks to them regularly by phone.

“The comfortable part is that you’re not stressed by bills while you’re living here. There’s no other place in the world you can live for $300 a month,” he says. “But nothing is given to you. You have to be willing to help yourself.”

July 2011
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