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PTSD Vet "Chooses" Homelessness

Discussion in 'News, Politics & Debates' started by batgirl, Oct 20, 2007.

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  1. batgirl

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    A bowl of corn flakes and room-temperature milk sits in front of Kevan Boman, 52, at a table in the Duluth Union Gospel Mission. His eyes flip down for a second, his lips purse and twist into a slight frown — just another reminder of what his life has become. “This is breakfast,” he says as his eyes shift up to the acrid cafeteria, not wanting any of the other sad, tired faces of destitute and homeless people to get too close to him. As he eats, he reminisces about what his life once was. He was a military man for 27 years, a veteran of two wars who retired as a decorated officer. He was a nurse, a proud husband and father of three daughters, once so wealthy that he donated thousands of dollars to the very soup kitchens where he now eats.

    Now, he lives in a car. It was other cars, before those were stolen or repossessed. In between were unlocked garages, tool sheds and apartment building basements, gas station bathrooms, drug houses or the couches of his daughters’ homes. Before all that, before he had to sneak into hospital and gas station bathrooms to bathe and groom himself, before the drugs and the suicide attempts, it was a three-bedroom, two-bath, two-car-garage home in a tree-lined Duluth neighborhood with his family.

    That was his life three years ago, before his mind was overwhelmed by the guilt and shame from post-traumatic stress disorder, and he walked out on it all. Since then, he has lived on the streets, but it doesn’t have to be that way. He could take his military disability checks for a tax-free $4,400 a month, get an apartment and start his life over. But he won’t. He says he would rather give his money away, to his kids, to friends, to just about anyone who asks for it. He says he would rather punish himself. “I haven’t made peace with myself,” he says, pausing for a moment as his eyes drop again, disappointment stretching across his face. “This is my penance. I don’t let God forgive me. I don’t know why I do this. I have to.”

    On any given night, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are about 200,000 homeless veterans across the country, and about 400,000 veterans experience homelessness over the course of a year. About 97 percent of them are men, and they account for 23 percent of the total homeless population. There’s no easy answer to why there are so many homeless veterans, though 45 percent suffer from mental health problems and substance abuse.

    “Some people develop alcohol abuse or dependence as they try to treat themselves,” said Dr. Ira Katz, VA’s national chief consultant for mental health. “Then the two conditions together can lead to difficulties with work and social relationships that could lead, in turn, to unemployment, separation or divorce, and homelessness.” Still, he said, it seems almost like an alien concept to him to suggest someone would choose to be homeless.

    “I’m not sure that homelessness is a choice,” Katz said. Instead, he suggests that a situation like Boman’s may be a complication of PTSD.

    “People think they are making a choice,” said Phil Ringstrom, a counselor at the Duluth Vet Center. “If they could flip a switch to make themselves better, they’d flip the switch. They’re not choosing this. They’re enduring.”

    So it’s debatable as to whether Boman chooses to live in his car.

    He joined the military in the 1970s, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who served in the second and first world wars. He got married, had kids, and eventually went to St. Scholastica to study nursing, graduating with academic honors. He got divorced and raised his children as a single father until he remarried in 1989, all the while working in the Army. He was activated for the 1991 Persian Gulf War and worked as a combat medic. It was a short war, Boman said, “but I was in the thick of things.” When he came home, the problems began. There was the sleep deprivation, the inability to concentrate, the constant sense of agitation and the feeling of needing to be on alert.

    “My wife saw it in 1991. She saw something different in me, that I was slowly changing,” he said. “She was a social worker, and said I needed help. I just fought it.” He fought it by becoming a workaholic. “You work and you work and you work to bury it,” he said. “I worked so hard, but it kept showing up more and more. You know something’s wrong with you, but you don’t know what it is.”

    They bought a house in 1997. There were problems, including a DUI conviction for Boman in 2000, but he said it was nothing more than a normal family would have. Then Sept. 11, 2001, came. Two weeks later, he was activated to Afghanistan to serve as a medic. When he came home at the end of 2002, Boman said, he took a job as a director of clinical operations for a temporary health care staffing agency in Duluth. He boasts of being in charge of 300 employees, including nurses, nursing assistants and occupational therapists — all while earning $150,000 a year plus keeping a company car.

    “I’d say we were extremely spoiled,” said his daughter, Jennifer Myers. “Extremely.”

    Boman said he lost it March 15, 2004, when he walked out of his house and lived on the streets for two weeks, sleeping anywhere he could find cover. Myers found him and brought him home, where his family did an intervention and got him into counseling. It didn’t help. Soon after, he said, his company asked him to quit. He started thinking about suicide and made his first attempts, unable to erase his war stories from his mind — the only thing he really won’t talk about. He’ll only slip in clues and snippets here and there, his thoughts flowing without a beginning or end. There were the snipers shooting at him, and the time a gun was aimed at him but the trigger jammed. There was the time he came across one of their tankers getting hit, getting hit hard, and a commander who lost his eyes.

    “He was crying to his wife,” Boman said, “thinking his wife wouldn’t want him anymore because he was deformed.”

    He talks about the soldiers he couldn’t save, about the soldiers he had to lie to. “No, you’re not going to die, you’re going to be OK, that's what I told them” he said. “I lived. That’s my sin.”

    He has told the complete stories only once, while in counseling at an intensive inpatient VA clinic in St. Cloud where he spent 12 weeks at the end of 2004. After that, he was put on suicide watch. “The stuff I’ve seen, I could never tell you. The emotional pain, it kills you,” he said. “You want to die. I’d rather be dead.”

    His wife filed for divorce in June 2005, but Boman said he learned about it months later. Instead of sending the papers to Myers’ home, where he occasionally stayed, Boman said she sent the papers to their home, knowing he wouldn’t be there. Because Boman wasn’t in court when the marriage was dissolved, he said everything his wife asked for, she got, including the house. For Boman, who said he was trying to rehabilitate himself, the divorce was crushing. Although he had been doing drugs before the divorce, he said, he began “pounding my nose with coke” soon after.

    Kathryn Boman declined to talk for this story, and Myers said the divorce and her father’s illness has split the family. “He has nobody,” she said. “This is not my dad. My father has too much pride to eat in food kitchens, to get government benefits. He worked really hard to get where he was being a single father. Just to lose it in two years doesn’t make sense to me. I won’t give up on him.” But lately, they’ve been fighting, she said, and she hasn’t spoken with him in three weeks. “There’s nothing I can do,” she said. “I can lecture him. I can only do so much when somebody doesn’t accept your help.”

    Experts say Boman and others like him with extreme cases of PTSD can again live normal lives, starting by using the community resources and treatment options available to them. “What’s the prognosis for this veteran? Cautiously optimistic,” Katz said. “Recovery will take treatment and rehabilitation, time and work. However, treatment and rehabilitation work.”

    But the first step is up to Boman. “They have to realize that they can’t do it alone,” said Ringstrom of the Vet Center. “I think it’s that way for any of us. We can’t fight cancer by ourselves, we can’t fight addiction by ourselves, and we can’t fight this by ourselves.”

    Does Boman see a future for himself? Possibly. He said that he’s been clean since May and has been occasionally going to group counseling. He now lives in a temporary shelter, which will let him stay as long as he works to find permanent housing. He said he doesn’t want to live through another winter outside — but he doesn’t seem too interested in living at all. “Whether I live or die is a struggle I have every day,” Boman has said. “I pray every day for God to come and take me home.”

    Source: Brandon Stahl, The Associated Press
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