"When we already have people from Iraq on the streets, my God," said Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. "I have talked to enough (shelters) to know we are getting them. It is happening and this nation is not prepared for that."
"I drove off in my truck. I packed my stuff. I lived out of my truck for a while," Seabees Petty Officer Luis Arellano, 34, said in a telephone interview from a homeless shelter near March Air Force Base in California run by U.S.VETS, the largest organization in the country dedicated to helping homeless veterans.
Arellano said he lived out of his truck on and off for three months after returning from Iraq in September 2003. "One day you have a home and the next day you are on the streets," he said.
In Iraq, shrapnel nearly severed his left thumb. He still has trouble moving it and shrapnel "still comes out once in a while," Arellano said. He is left handed.
Arellano said he felt pushed out of the military too quickly after getting back from Iraq without medical attention he needed for his hand -- and as he would later learn, his mind.
"It was more of a rush. They put us in a warehouse for a while. They treated us like cattle," Arellano said about how the military treated him on his return to the United States.
"It is all about numbers. Instead of getting quality care, they were trying to get everybody demobilized during a certain time frame. If you had a problem, they said, 'Let the (Department of Veterans Affairs) take care of it.'"
The Pentagon has acknowledged some early problems and delays in treating soldiers returning from Iraq but says the situation has been fixed.
A gunner's mate for 16 years, Arellano said he adjusted after serving in the first Gulf War. But after returning from Iraq, depression drove him to leave his job at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He got divorced.
He said that after being quickly pushed out of the military, he could not get help from the VA because of long delays.
"I felt, as well as others (that the military said) 'We can't take care of you on active duty.' We had to sign an agreement that we would follow up with the VA," said Arellano.
"When we got there, the VA was totally full. They said, 'We'll call you.' But I developed depression."
He left his job and wandered for three months, sometimes living in his truck.
Nearly 300,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and almost half served during the Vietnam era, according to the Homeless Veterans coalition, a consortium of community-based homeless-veteran service providers. While some experts have questioned the degree to which mental trauma from combat causes homelessness, a large number of veterans live with the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, according to the coalition.
Some homeless-veteran advocates fear that similar combat experiences in Vietnam and Iraq mean that these first few homeless veterans from Iraq are the crest of a wave.
"This is what happened with the Vietnam vets. I went to Vietnam," said John Keaveney, chief operating officer of New Directions, a shelter and drug-and-alcohol treatment program for veterans in Los Angeles. That city has an estimated 27,000 homeless veterans, the largest such population in the nation. "It is like watching history being repeated," Keaveney said.
Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that as of last July, nearly 28,000 veterans from Iraq sought health care from the VA. One out of every five was diagnosed with a mental disorder, according to the VA. An Army study in the New England Journal of Medicine in July showed that 17 percent of service members returning from Iraq met screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety disorder or PTSD.
Asked whether he might have PTSD, Arrellano, the Seabees petty officer who lived out of his truck, said: "I think I do, because I get nightmares. I still remember one of the guys who was killed." He said he gets $100 a month from the government for the wound to his hand.
Lance Cpl. James Claybon Brown Jr., 23, is staying at a shelter run by U.S.VETS in Los Angeles. He fought in Iraq for 6 months with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines and later in Afghanistan with another unit. He said the fighting in Iraq was sometimes intense.
"We were pretty much all over the place," Brown said. "It was really heavy gunfire, supported by mortar and tanks, the whole nine (yards)."
Brown acknowledged the mental stress of war, particularly after Marines inadvertently killed civilians at road blocks. He thinks his belief in God helped him come home with a sound mind.
"We had a few situations where, I guess, people were trying to get out of the country. They would come right at us and they would not stop," Brown said. "We had to open fire on them. It was really tough. A lot of soldiers, like me, had trouble with that."
"That was the hardest part," Brown said. "Not only were there men, but there were women and children -- really little children. There would be babies with arms blown off. It was something hard to live with."
Brown said he got an honorable discharge with a good conduct medal from the Marines in July and went home to Dayton, Ohio. But he soon drifted west to California "pretty much to start over," he said.
Brown said his experience with the VA was positive, but he has struggled to find work and is staying with U.S.VETS to save money. He said he might go back to school.
Advocates said seeing homeless veterans from Iraq should cause alarm. Around one-fourth of all homeless Americans are veterans, and more than 75 percent of them have some sort of mental or substance abuse problem, often PTSD, according to the Homeless Veterans coalition.
More troubling, experts said, is that mental problems are emerging as a major casualty cluster, particularly from the war in Iraq where the enemy is basically everywhere and blends in with the civilian population, and death can come from any direction at any time.
Interviews and visits to homeless shelters around the Unites States show the number of homeless veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan so far is limited. Of the last 7,500 homeless veterans served by the VA, 50 had served in Iraq. Keaveney, from New Directions in West Los Angeles, said he is treating two homeless veterans from the Army's elite Ranger battalion at his location. U.S.VETS, the largest organization in the country dedicated to helping homeless veterans, found nine veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan in a quick survey of nine shelters. Others, like the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training in Baltimore, said they do not currently have any veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan in their 170 beds set aside for emergency or transitional housing.
Peter Dougherty, director of Homeless Veterans Programs at the VA, said services for veterans at risk of becoming homeless have improved exponentially since the Vietnam era. Over the past 30 years, the VA has expanded from 170 hospitals, adding 850 clinics and 206 veteran centers with an increasing emphasis on mental health. The VA also supports around 300 homeless veteran centers like the ones run by U.S.VETS, a partially non-profit organization.
"You probably have close to 10 times the access points for service than you did 30 years ago," Dougherty said. "We may be catching a lot of these folks who are coming back with mental illness or substance abuse" before they become homeless in the first place. Dougherty said the VA serves around 100,000 homeless veterans each year.
But Boone's group says that nearly 500,000 veterans are homeless at some point in any given year, so the VA is only serving 20 percent of them.
Roslyn Hannibal-Booker, director of development at the Maryland veterans center in Baltimore, said her organization has begun to get inquiries from veterans from Iraq and their worried families. "We are preparing for Iraq," Hannibal-Booker said.