A homeless person's grocery cart and chair are seen during a Veterans Day parade
Michael Nagle / Getty Images
My eyes always cringe at the sight of a homeless veteran. As I know the pains of war firsthand, it breaks my heart to see that people who have sacrificed so much for my freedom are suffering to such a degree. But it's comforting to know that groups like the American Legion Homeless Veterans Housing Project in Jewett City, Conn., have been renovating old buildings and turning them into shelters for veterans for quite some time. They've raised millions of dollars from private businesses and caring citizens. The federal government has even said it would chip in the monthly rent of $875 for 15 veterans each year and provide additional funds for construction.
Unfortunately, in the recent round of intense budget cuts in Congress, this small funding for the homeless-shelter project was slashed, along with a total of $75 million in homeless-veteran benefits. As both a veteran and an American, I don't believe that veterans' programs should ever be isolated from budget cuts. After all, if the nation is hurting, it is we veterans who have sacrificed and will sacrifice first to protect her. But when I turn the pages of the budget to find a $7.4 million guaranteed commitment to fund a U.S. Army NASCAR sponsorship — and $20 million more from the National Guard to do the same — my blood begins to boil.(See how war affects Americans at home.)
Advertising consultants may argue that the marketing statistics actually make the NASCAR project worthwhile, that it's great "bang for the buck" in getting the Army slogan in front of millions of young auto fans salivating at the masculine thrill of modern sport. But is this really what we've come down to in our military-recruitment strategy? Have we boiled down the science of appealing to the core of the most dedicated young Americans to simple ad placement? To more-forgiving critics, this is just a miscalculation. To me, it is a telling exposition of how removed our policymakers are from the personal narratives of the men and women who execute their orders.
Running on my 24th month as a platoon leader — 12 of them in combat — I have had the chance to hear each of my soldiers' life stories from before their enlistment. Some had seen tremendous success; others had seen horrific family pains I know I could never endure. When I ask my soldiers why they joined the Army, each of their answers is unique and far more sophisticated than a halftime commercial.
Michael's dad was once in the Special Forces in Vietnam, and there was a distance between them for some time. Michael joined the Army against his father's wishes to better understand him. Since then, their relationship has grown closer than ever.
Doug hadn't graduated high school and was already in a bad crowd that would have probably led him to an early death or jail time. When his father died, there was no one in his family bringing home a consistent paycheck. He knew he had to make something of his life. He joined the Army.(See TIME's photo-essay "Going Home from Iraq.")
Aaron is a college graduate, deeply interested in politics and energy independence. He chose not to do the ROTC because, in his words, adding up his enlistment bonus and the accelerated promotion points from his degree, it was more profitable for him to enlist than commission. He's now one of the most senior and respected NCOs in the company, as well as a loving husband and father.
America's service members are not one-dimensional people. The military's target audience — those who have the fortitude to sign on the dotted line — are not simpletons who will be called to action by a race car. They are smart. They are thoughtful. They are not children but grown men and women, and they deserve to be treated as such.
That being said, when a smart, young high school student from Connecticut is considering enlistment, what sort of "ad placement" do homeless veterans on his neighborhood block present? What does that high school student think when he sees veterans unemployed or without health insurance?
For many homeless veterans, residual emotional and psychological effects of war are what led to their unfortunate circumstances. When we fail to support our veterans in dire conditions, we present military service as an unsustainable lifestyle to our prime recruitment audience. Those potential enlistees will deduce that they can better care for their families and themselves in other professions — and our front lines will be weaker for it. Thus, this isn't just a veterans'-affairs issue but a national-security issue and should be regarded as one. With every soldier I've met, the common denominator in their decision to join the Army was a caring mentor whom they wanted to make proud. Rather than spending millions chasing stock cars to get attention, why don't we invest in the mentors — the American veteran heroes — who can sell the honor and fulfillment of military service better than any athlete ever could?
I truly hope the American Legion Homeless Veterans Housing Project continues its venture. In the meantime, the manner in which our senior policymakers conceive the psyches of the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who lay their lives on the line each day for this country needs a drastic shift. This oversimplification of our identities costs this nation money; it will eventually cost us military talent and perhaps even lives. If you know a soldier or veteran, don't just thank them for their service. Take the time to understand why they joined — and why they stayed — in the military. It's an issue we must all understand if we are to democratically influence the decisions that will protect our country. Otherwise, we'll just be driving in circles around the same problem for years to come.