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2004-12-23

Homeless Veterans: Soldiers Go From Fighting in Iraq to Fighting A New War At Home

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Two soldiers who recently returned from Iraq talk about how they faced another battle after they returned home. Nicole Goodwin, 24, only found a permanent place to live after she was profiled in the New York Times. 25-year-old Herold Noel is still looking for a place to live for his family. He talks to Democracy Now! in his first broadcast interview. [includes rush transcript]

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remains under fire from multiple sides of the political spectrum in this country. Most significantly, several leading Republican lawmakers like Senators John McCain, Chuck Hagle and Trent Lott have voiced their opposition to Rumsfeld remaining for another term in the Bush cabinet. This week, the calls for his resignation gained more momentum after Rumsfeld admitted that he had not been personally signing letters of condolence to families of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, Rumsfeld used a rubber-stamp type machine to automatically place his signature on the letters.

Rumsfeld already was under the gun for remarks he made in response to questions from US soldiers in Kuwait on the inadequate amount of armor on their vehicles in Iraq and other shortages facing soldiers serving in the occupation. On Wednesday at the Pentagon press briefing, Rumsfeld tried to deflect criticism that he has neglected US soldiers.

  • Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speaking yesterday at the Pentagon. As the controvery continues over Rumsfeld"s future, it is not only soldiers now deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan who face serious problems. For many soldiers, another battle begins once they return to so-called civilian life in this country after leaving the war zone.

It has become one of the most shameful realities in this country. The number of veterans who return home to the US and end up living on the streets or in homeless shelters. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, nearly 300,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and almost half of those are Vietnam vets.

Now, with the occupation of Iraq and some 150,000 troops deployed there and thousands more who have returned, a new generation of soldiers are facing the same realities experienced by their colleagues who fought in Vietnam and in other conflicts. Some of them are suffering from the effects of depleted uranium; others from posttraumatic stress disorder or mental illness sparked by their time in the zone of combat. Others find they have no place to live. Today, we are going to look at the stories of two veterans of the occupation of Iraq who came home to discover how some of the soldiers publicly celebrated by the Bush administration are forced to live.

  • Nicole Goodwin, former homeless veteran who retured from Iraq earlier this year. She now works with Operation Truth and lobbies on behalf of other Iraq war veterans.
  • Herold Noel, former Army specialist who recently returned from Iraq. He is now without a home.

Related Links:
The Indypendent: "Invisible Soldier: A Perilous Journey from Flatbush to Falluja And Back Leaves Herold Noel Out in the Cold"

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday at the Pentagon press briefing, Rumsfeld tried to deflect criticism that he’s neglected U.S. soldiers.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I, and I know others, stay awake at night with concern for those at risk, with hope for their lives, for their success, and I want those who matter most the men and women in uniform and their families, to know that. And I want them to know that we consider them, the soldiers, the sailors, the airmen, and the marines, to be America’s true treasure, and I thank them and I thank their families."

AMY GOODMAN: That is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speaking at the Pentagon. As the controversy continues over Donald Rumsfeld’s future, it’s not only soldiers now deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan who face serious problems. For many soldiers, another battle begins once they return to so-called civilian life in this country after leaving the war zone.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It has become one of the most shameful realities in this country, the number of veterans who return home to the U.S. and end up living on the streets or in homeless shelters. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, nearly 300,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, almost half of them Vietnam vets.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, with the occupation of Iraq and some 150,000 troops deployed there, and thousands more who have returned, a new generation of soldiers are facing the same realities experienced by their colleagues who fought in Vietnam and other conflicts. Some of them are suffering from the effects of depleted uranium, others from post- traumatic stress disorder, a mental illness sparked by their time in the zone of combat. Others find they have no place to live. Today we look at the story of Herold Noel, who is joining us in our studio right now, came home to discover how some of the soldiers are publicly — who are publicly celebrated by the Bush administration are forced to live. Herold Noel is a former army specialist who recently returned from Iraq. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

HEROLD NOEL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Herold, when did you get back?

HEROLD NOEL: I got back August of 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: And that means that you’ve been home for more than a year?

HEROLD NOEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are you living?

HEROLD NOEL: I’m living everywhere. Wherever I can find a place to stay, where I can lay my head, that’s where I stay. I don’t have a current address or nothing like that. But my family is now staying with my — my wife and my children are staying with her sister-in-law, my sister.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, could you tell us — you — the unit that you were in and when you first got to Iraq and maybe a little bit of your — of the experiences that you had over there?

HEROLD NOEL: In Iraq, when we first went into Iraq, from the beginning, it was — I knew it was a —- a battle we could take. You understand? It was going to be a quick go-in— come-out, 'cause the weapons they had was — was not equal to ours. You understand? Their weapons were primitive, so we found it was an easy war. But there was just a lot of slaughter and death. That's all.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You were telling us earlier that you weren’t even aware really that you were going to war.

HEROLD NOEL: No, no. I wasn’t aware. I thought when we went to — When we were going to Iraq, first we were stationed in Kuwait for training, as they say. So, when we went to training, we didn’t know what was going to happen, if we were just going to come back home or what until they told us we were going to war. And then we found ourselves sitting at the borderline of Kuwait and Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Your family members sending you newspapers saying you were going to war, yet you were being told you were just training. What do you mean when you say slaughter, it was a slaughter?

HEROLD NOEL: It was a slaughter because the people — It was like fighting guns with — with arrows. You understand? 'Cause those people over there, they had weapons, but their weapons wasn't — You understand? Even the AK’s they had wasn’t accurate. 'Cause there be soldiers standing not, I could say, not even miles away like, close to the soldier shooting, and it wouldn't hit a soldier. And they — and they just get taken out. Children would be on the streets getting caught in the crossfire. I see children get run by tanks.

AMY GOODMAN: Run over?

HEROLD NOEL: Run over by tanks. And — and it’s just sad.

AMY GOODMAN: You were in Fallujah?

HEROLD NOEL: Yes. I was in Fallujah.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You served with what unit?

HEROLD NOEL: Three seven Cav., in Fort Stewart.

AMY GOODMAN: Fort Stewart, Georgia?

HEROLD NOEL: Yeah, Fort Stewart, Georgia.

AMY GOODMAN: And what were the other soldiers saying? What were your conversations?

HEROLD NOEL: Our conversations was basically — you understand: How we going to be looked at when we get back home? Are we going to be looked at as heroes or as people that were just, you know, fighting for Bush. You understand? And we thought we were going to come back as heroes, 'cause we thought we were helping people over there, and — But that wasn't the case. You understand? 'Cause we seen the oil spilling through the streets. And we knew what we was fighting for, ’cause people say it's for 9/11 and weapons of mass destruction, which we didn’t see, 'cause we went into nuclear plants and stuff like that, and we didn't see no such thing. So, we didn’t know what we were fighting for. All we know, we were fighting for the peace of the people in Iraq. And so, we had to keep our mind on that we fighting for the peace in Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How long did it take you and the soldiers in your unit to realize how unwelcome you were there?

HEROLD NOEL: The minute we hit Iraq, we knew we wasn’t welcome. 'Cause we were getting ambushed every day. We had even kids shooting AK's at us. We had about — even twelve-year-olds, eleven-year-olds shooting AK’s at us, rushing our trucks, trying to get food of the trucks. It was — it’s hard for me to talk about it.

AMY GOODMAN: You have kids yourself?

HEROLD NOEL: Yes, I have kids myself.

AMY GOODMAN: How many?

HEROLD NOEL: I have three kids. My twins are five and my youngest one — son is one.

AMY GOODMAN: When you were in Iraq, did you use your weapon?

HEROLD NOEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you kill people?

HEROLD NOEL: It’s hard — yes. Yes, I did. It’s hard for me to collect that, 'cause once — once you take a life, you understand, you lose a piece of yourself. You understand? You don't know what’s going to happen you. You take a life, or you could expect for your life to be taken next. And that’s how I was living in Iraq. Sometimes the soldiers they don’t even care no more. 'Cause they took so much lives, you understand, they were just sitting around waiting for their life to be taken. ’Cause bombs would go off right next to us, we wouldn't even jump. You understand? If they hit us, they hit us, if it don’t, it don’t. 'Cause we didn't care no more. 'Cause we went weeks and months, sometimes months, without sleeping and — until we just finally said: "You know what? I'm gonna to sleep tonight. If I don’t wake up, it was just my time to go." 'Cause we took a life. You understand? And everybody just had the thought: Well, since we took a life, our life is next. That's how everybody was living.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What happened when you came back?

HEROLD NOEL: When I came back, it — it was rough. When I came back I stayed in — 'Cause they extended me six months. What happened, they extended me six months. I tried to stay in Georgia for a while, to see if I could make it, ’cause I, you know, I was told the — the war in Iraq — I mean, being living in New York was going to be rough. So I came to New York ’cause I didn't have no means of transportation in Georgia. I didn’t have no — no way to get back and forth to work. So, I came to New York to see — You know, that’s where I was born and raised. So I just said, let me come back to New York and see if I can find a job. 'Cause where I stayed in Georgia, it was a military town. You understand? Everybody — you understand? You in the military, so nobody's going to look down on you. So I — I was thinking, well, let me come to New York where I can get away from this military stuff and get on my feet. But that’s not the way is ended. I ended up on the street and nowhere to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Herold Noel, a former army specialist. Came back home is homeless now. We’re also joined by Nicole Goodwin. She came home from Iraq. It’s great to have you with us.

NICOLE GOODWIN: Good morning, everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m glad you could make it.

NICOLE GOODWIN: Hello.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole also found herself in a similar situation. But Nicole, before you went to Iraq, you had a baby less than two months before you left. Is that right?

NICOLE GOODWIN: Yes, I was — When the war was declared, I was still pregnant, and my unit had been called up already, and they were ready for transport; so, about the time I reunited with them, most of my unit had already deployed. And I was forced to make a decision between my duty and service and being a provider for my child and — you know, I decided that my duty would help me do that, because I think that without the military protecting the American freedom, that we — our children won’t have a future in the United States or abroad. So, I had to come to a very quick decision. Most people expected, you know, a great shock, but when you’re in the military service, you are aware that you could get called up any time. And I was very aware of that, and I had made the conscious decision. I wasn’t forced.I mean, I had areas to leave, but I decided that, you know, I was a soldier and I was going to serve and I wanted to contribute to the world my daughter lived in.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And who took care of your daughter while you were gone?

NICOLE GOODWIN: I had her with some close friends in California. The situation back in New York really didn’t allow for me to try to keep her there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you went to Iraq, came home, and what happened? How did you end up in the streets with your daughter?

NICOLE GOODWIN: It wasn’t necessarily the streets, because there are two types of homelessness. There’s the streets where most people see the homeless, they live — they occupy the subways and the city streets, and then there’s the system. And the system is actually worse than living on the streets. Most people are rejected from the system, and the only alternative is the streets. So, you know, when I had come home, the transition was very rough. It wasn’t — you know, easy. My household wasn’t as stable as most households. You know, I wasn’t welcomed with open arms. And here I was with a baby. And, you know, it went from staying with my mother, to staying at friends’, to just in the system within a matter of four months. And, you know, most people think that, you know, the timespan from returning home, that it can happen, you know, it could take years to become homeless. And, you know, that’s — that is obviously not true. It took me a matter of months. Some people it takes a matter of weeks. Some days it could take a matter of days — Sometimes it could take a matter of days. So, I think the biggest myth that people believe about home — veterans is that we come home and we have this stable, occupied space that is always waiting for us, and that’s not true.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But let me ask you — the military when they recruit people, always trumpet all of the benefits and that the military provides. You know, opportunity for college education, for training, that they’ll provide you for skills. Did you get any support or any — Does the military in any way assist veterans who have left service?

NICOLE GOODWIN: It’s not that the military — First of all, the military doesn’t assist. It’s the Department of Veterans Affairs.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Veterans affairs.

NICOLE GOODWIN: And that’s a big myth. People think — Most people, the public, they believe that the military has, you know, authorization on what happens to soldiers who leave the service, and that’s not true. Once you leave the service, you’re under Veterans Affairs. You are now a veteran. You’re not a soldier anymore. I think the biggest problem with that is the fact that there’s a segregation once you leave, and the transition time is cut short and — You know, people believe that there’s help there, and, yes, there are benefits. I’m not going to say there wasn’t. I do have a G.I. Bil. But if I don’t have a house to live in, I can’t get a job. If I can’t get a job, I can’t go back to school. 'Cause I have a child to support. Most people coming out of the military, we go in single. We come out with children. So, there are benefits there, but the benefits haven't been brought up to the — to this now time span that we have, you know. I mean, most of our benefits deal with Vietnam vets, and it took them, you know, twenty, thirty years to get what we have now. But, it’s not taking care of us in the sense of proaction and preventing this from happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole and Herold, I want to thank you very much for being with us. This program has come to an end, but on Monday, we’ll run part two of this interview that we’ll continue after the program. To talk with Herold about what it meant to come home and be with his wife and children, and the conflicts he faced there. And to talk with Nicole about what it meant to actually get a home after she was profiled in The New York Times and what a difference that made, and what she has decided to dedicate her life to. There’s also a profile in the new issue The Indypendent, the newspaper of the New York Indy Media Center, you can go to indymedia.org, independent.org, or just go to our website democracynow.org and we will link to that article. It is called, "Invisible Soldier." Again, Herold Noel and Nicole Goodwin, thanks so much for being us with.

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