Video: Iraq veterans' emotional wounds

By Mike Taibbi Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/25/2005 7:46:19 PM ET 2005-01-26T00:46:19

When President George W. Bush made his surprise Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad in November 2003, the handpicked soldier he embraced was Army Reserve Specialist Varetta Barnes.

"He leaned in and gave me a little kiss on the cheek," remembers Spc. Barnes. "I was like, 'oh my God!'"

Barnes, a mother of three teens, had volunteered for Iraq duty and served as a civil affairs liaison to Iraq's business community.

"That's what I went there to do, to help people," she says.

But as the insurgency intensified during her year-long tour, herexperience was every soldier's experience.

"It was constant explosions and people shooting," says Barnes.

Worse, though, was the scene on the home front. By the time her active duty ended last April, her husband wasn't around, her kids had gone to live in her mother's small apartment, and there was no job waiting that could pay for her own apartment.

"Basically, when I came back, I was homeless," says Barnes.

An Iraq war vet with no place to live? It turns out that Varetta Barnes is only one of around 100 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who quickly tumbled into homelessness.

"It's all about economics and having a job," says Linda Boone of the Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Those economics are often compounded by substance abuse and mental health issues.

But soldiers in a rush to return to civilian life often don't hear the details of the specific help available to them should problems pile up, and Boone says neither the military nor the veterans administration make them aware.

"When that consistently happens, then they're not doing an adequate job," says Boone.

Dr. Alfonse Batres, who heads the Department of Veterans Affairs transition assistance programs, says it's up to the individual soldier to seek help.

"You may offer all the programs in the world, but if they don't come in to receive those services then it's very difficult to provide them access," says Dr. Batres.

Varetta Barnes is one of those soldiers who says until now she never knew where the lifeline was.

"I'm going to seek counseling for myself and my children," she says.

Now she's Sgt. Barnes. Her solution was to re-enlist for active duty, hoping for a job as a recruiter, but also willing to return to Iraq.

"There's no way that a soldier should come back here and be homeless — ever, ever," she says.

For Sgt. Barnes, the Army at least means a job, and a home.

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