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Walking Wounded: The VA missed serious warning signs that presaged local vet’s violent breakdown

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

Adan Castaneda in 2005 after joining the Marine Corps.

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

Adan Castaneda after his 2011 arrest.

Photo: Micahel Barajas, License: N/A

Micahel Barajas

Maria Anna Esparza, still waiting for her son to "come home."

Sitting outside Haven for Hope, downtown San Antonio’s sprawling homeless services campus, Cruz Vallarta remarked, “I’d say 95 percent of the vets I see that come through our sobering program, they’re self-medicating. They’re tired of the life they have. They haven’t hurt themselves or killed themselves because they just haven’t been pushed over that edge yet.”

Vallarta, himself a Vietnam veteran, spends his days in and out of homeless shelters and on the streets looking for former service members long forgotten by society. A caseworker with the Center for Healthcare Services, Vallarta works to connect veterans to substance abuse programs, mental health treatment, and counseling in the area.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that as many as 107,000 veterans sleep on the streets on any given night due to a frustratingly complex set of causes: shortages in affordable housing, lingering effects from PTSD and other mental illness, unemployment or underemployment, self-medication and substance abuse. While vets make up about 8 percent of the general population, they constitute nearly one-fifth of the homeless population, according to the coalition. A yearly Trinity University survey of the San Antonio’s homeless population puts the local number higher — 32 percent of the city’s chronically homeless population are veterans, over half of which suffer from some sort of physical or mental ailment.

“We have a huge problem on our hands. [These soldiers] didn’t volunteer for these ramifications, and almost everybody who was in the combat zone comes back with some sort of post-traumatic stress,” says Judge Christian. “This increases the need in their mind to go out and find a release, and that could be alcohol, drugs. They’re angry, depressed. … This constant deployment cycle, it can destroy people.”

Veterans returning from war only to find themselves on the streets is a problem that’s long nagged at the military, says James Timmons, director of San Antonio’s residential American GI Forum center for homeless veterans. Former soldiers staying at the center range from newly discharged Iraq and Afghanistan vets to those who’ve battled homelessness since returning from war in Vietnam. “When we’re talking about these guys from the Vietnam era, certainly the social acceptance just wasn’t there for a lot of them. … Some just took that and traveled the country, isolated from society,” Timmons said. “For many, travel eventually became living on the street.” Trinity’s survey shows that roughly 80 percent of San Antonio’s homeless veterans served in Vietnam.

Now in his 60s, a man who wished to be identified only as “Anthony” says he’s lived on and off the streets ever since he returning from conflict in Vietnam. Currently living at the GI Forum shelter, he spends most of his days out looking for work. Calm and quiet with long greying hair, Anthony easily recalls scenes from war, of battle buddies killed, the punishing jungle, and the firefights. “It’s not the same when you get back. You’re just different. You’ll never be the same, and you carry that with you for the rest of your freaking life.”

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