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From Patrolling the Golan Heights to Roaming the Streets of Springfield: One Homeless Veteran Prepares for Winter

2011 statistics show veterans are more likely to become—and stay—homeless than the average American.
Robert Henson
This photo shows a young Robert Henson in the 1970s, when he was an Army engineer working on tanks. Today, he is one of Springfield's homeless veterans.(Photo provided by Robert Henson)

Robert Henson served in the army in the ‘70s as an electrical hydraulics engineer.  He worked on tanks. In 1973, he found himself headed to the Middle East, specifically to the Golan Heights—a strategic piece of coveted land between Syria and Israel.   He was part of the UN Multi-national Peacekeeping force charged with keeping the two countries from engaging in direct war.  Henson says the force’s guns were continually pointed at both sides, and the tension was through the roof.

“And  anytime a tank would fail, I would have to work 24-7 to get that tank up and running. And I was cross-trained to where I could work on the German tanks.  I was also cross-trained to work on the British tanks,” Henson said.

After serving in the Middle East, Henson served in Germany, where he was severely injured by an explosion when a missile misfired. He shows me the burn scars on his wrists and face.  Henson received an medical honorable discharge. 

Nearly forty years later, he’s homeless in Springfield, applying for Social Security and low-income housing.  He says he lost his job because he didn’t know how to cope with mental issues he was struggling with.  

He’s here at the Cook’s Kettle on Commercial Street to get some lunch, as well as some supplies--razor blades and thermal underwear for the winter weather.

At the side of the room are boxes of boots, bags of gloves, and rows of hygiene supplies.   This event is a joint effort between the VA Clinics in southwest Missouri, the Vet Center, the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

“We work hard to provide for other veterans,” says Randy Thomas, commander of the military order of the Purple Heart, Chapter 621 in Springfield.  That’s an organization comprised of wounded combat veterans.

Thomas helped organize this event for homeless veterans.   He himself served as a crew chief on a helicopter gunship in Vietnam in ’68 and ’69.  He was on a night mission, hanging out the left door, firing back at anti-aircraft gun when a round came in and sprayed him with shrapnel.

Looking around, he says it looks like most of the veterans here at this event are from the Veitnam era.

“We had hoped to reach some of the younger guys.  For some reason, some of the younger guys are just a little leery about getting involved in any of this. And I suppose I can understand that, because I think the Vietnam guys were like that to start with also,” Thomas says.

Thomas says veterans groups like his can play an important role in helping the homeless veteran population, because of the bond they all share.

“It takes a combat veteran to understand a combat veteran. There’s a certain bond there. And you know, they can say that World War Two guys won’t talk about it. But if they get around another combat veteran, they’ll pour their heart out to them,” Thomas says.

And Robert Henson, the homeless veteran, agrees.

“I think the community has done all that they can.  But I think they could be more understanding of veterans, and the plight of their situation…and just have open arms to them.  You have to walk in a man’s shoes to understand where he’s coming from. You don’t have to live in his shoes, but you have to understand where he’s coming from,” Henson said.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, veterans make up nearly 12 percent of the homeless population across America, even though they only account for nine percent of the country’s population.  Experts say that veterans have a higher rate of homelessness than the average American because of a variety of factors, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, and a lack of resources for coping with mental illness.

The supplies were donated through the Military Order of the Purple Heart-Chapter 621, as well as through a fundraiser at Reliable Superstore.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.