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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 28, 2006

Struggling vets find helping hand

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Matt Anderson, a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is now a part of the Veterans In Progress program at Kalaeloa run by U.S. VETS. The program operates housing facilities for more than 2,000 homeless veterans, and that population is expected to grow.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Building 34 at Kalaeloa is slated for renovations and improvements to accommodate homeless veterans. A $1.5 million project to add dorm housing and single-occupancy rooms is expected to start in February.

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Myron Lathan was involved in drugs, served prison time and was homeless before getting involved with the U.S. VETS-Hawai'i, a nonprofit homeless veterans service provider, at Kalaeloa. Today, he's the veterans service manager there and oversees day-to-day operations.

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KALAELOA Death, both in Iraq and at home, was overwhelming for Matt Anderson.

On the first of two combat tours, the artilleryman with the 1st Armored Division provided security at a Baghdad hospital.

"Nonstop death" is how he describes it. "We lived by the mortuary, and every day there would be an average of 30 to 40 bodies rolling past."

The 22-year-old man, who was born in American Samoa and grew up in Wai'anae, said four family members died while he was gone for those two years. He returned from Iraq in January and got out of the Army in July.

"Every time I did a tour over there, basically, someone in my family died," the former Army specialist said. "It was not being here at the time. It hurt me pretty bad."

He looked for a job, "but it was pretty hard to get a job that involves artillery."

Family stays were punctuated with anger. He ended up sleeping some nights on the beach.

A relative told him about a program for homeless veterans at Kalaeloa operated by U.S. VETS-Hawai'i. He's lived there since October with 183 other former service members, the majority of whom served during the Vietnam War.

"It's a nice community," Anderson said. "Seeing everybody interact from different wars they have different experiences to relate, so it helps you think about what you've done and what they've done and how it's so similar."

U.S. VETS, a nonprofit homeless veteran service provider, is a collaboration with Cloudbreak Development LLC, a for-profit real estate developer. The partnership operates housing facilities for more than 2,000 homeless veterans, and that population is expected to grow.

PROGRAM TO GROW

The housing and service program for homeless veterans one of 10 operated around the country is set to grow as a new generation of sometimes battle-scarred service members replace an older generation of World War II vets.

There are a couple of Korean War veterans in the program started in 2002 at Kalaeloa, but the last World War II vet died a couple of years ago, a program official said. Three in residence served in Iraq.

A $1.5 million project to add dorm housing for 20 more veterans and about 70 single-occupancy rooms with private bathrooms and kitchenettes is expected to start in February in one of three old barracks U.S. VETS has at the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station.

About 100 homeless veterans now live in dorm-like rooms that house four men. Another 84 veterans are in independent-living single and double-occupancy rooms, for which they pay rent of up to $500 a month.

A longer-term plan calls for the construction of three five-story buildings that will allow long-term housing on the 6-acre parcel.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs last March, Thomas R. Cantwell Jr., who manages Cloudbreak Development, said an "alarming new homeless veteran population is surfacing."

"In virtually all of our sites we are seeing Iraq War homeless veterans," Cantwell said. "Disturbingly, many of these mostly able-bodied young men are clearly disoriented."

Cantwell added that the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder is rampant, and "we suspect what we see today is but the tip of the iceberg."

DORM SPACE FREE

At the Kalaeloa facility, dorm space is available at no cost for homeless vets through the Veterans In Progress, or VIP, program.

"VIP is where guys are literally coming off the street and we're putting them in a bed and giving them food, shelter and clothing," said Darryl J. Vincent, the Hawai'i site director for U.S. VETS.

Support services also are offered. Eight out of 10 veterans need substance abuse or mental-health care. All residents have to go through a weekly urinalysis at the drug- and alcohol-free facility.

Vincent said there are an estimated 6,000 homeless people in Hawai'i and about 25 percent of the adult males are veterans. Many are Vietnam-era veterans who did not receive adequate care decades ago and have longstanding drug and mental-health problems.

"We're more educated now to see what happens when guys come back from combat," he said, adding that Veterans Affairs is an "excellent partner now."

Charles Patterson, property manager for Cloudbreak Hawai'i, said many of the homeless vets out there aren't ready to participate in the U.S. VETS program.

"We can't make them do it," he said.

The Kalaeloa facility averages 20 intakes and 15 to 16 discharges a month. With the renovations planned for next year, outreach and intakes are expected to increase.

The goal is to move veterans to jobs and independence, and the transition to a single room on site with rent of up to $500 is the next step. U.S. VETS said the rate is far below market. One individual has lived at the facility since it opened in 2002.

SUCCESS STORY

Myron Lathan, 51, is one of the success stories at U.S. VETS, but also an example of the downward spiral that can occur to successful people.

Lathan said he was a cryptologist and served in the Navy from 1974 to 1980. From 1980 to 1986, he worked for the National Security Agency.

A job change took him to Guam, and Typhoon Omar in 1992 brought him to Hawai'i, where he couldn't find a job, and he, his wife and son became homeless.

Cocaine and heroin use resulted in a two-year term at Halawa Prison. In 2004, he found out about U.S. VETS. Today, he's the veterans service manager there and oversees day-to-day operations.

Lathan lives in a 17-by-13-foot private room with a bathroom. He is divorced now, but his son works part-time on the site.

"I like helping people who went through the same things, or worse things, that I did," he said. "It kind of balances things out. Some people call it giving back. I can identify with just about every vet who comes through the door."

For Anderson, who came to the program in October, U.S. VETS is a way up and out of the problems he's had.

He's getting counseling through the VA.

"I'm not ready to talk to too many people, but they (U.S. VETS) are helping me break those barriers to communication, and hopefully, that will allow me to open up and not be so angry at everyone and everything all the time," he said.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.