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Invisible Soldiers: Iraq War Veterans Go Homeless Months After Returning From War

StoryDecember 27, 2004
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Democracy Now! continues its discussion with Iraq war veterans Herold Noel and Nicole Goodwin who faced an unexpected battle when they returned from Iraq–finding a place to live. [includes rush transcript]

An article written by John Tarleton in the new issue of The Indypendent, the newspaper of the NYC Indymedia Center, begins:

Four nights before Christmas, former Army specialist Herold Noel huddled for warmth in front of a fire he built for himself in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park as temperatures slid toward the single digits. Plagued by nightmares and unable to hold a steady job or get the assistance he needed, he was on the verge of losing his wife and three young children. It wasn’t the homecoming he’d expected after serving in Iraq last year.

According to the Pentagon, 955,000 U.S. troops have already served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The experiences of Noel and others like him have many observers worried that the country will be inundated by a wave of returning veterans with no place to go and reeling from psychological trauma, as happened toward the end of the Vietnam War. According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, up to 17 percent of troops returning from Iraq “met the screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].

Herold Noel, who is still looking for a place to live, joins us today along with another former homeless veteran, Nicole Goodwin for the second part of a discussion on homelessness and Iraq war veterans.

  • Herold Noel, former Army specialist who recently returned from Iraq. He is now without a home.

Nicole Goodwin, former homeless veteran who returned from Iraq earlier this year. She now works with Operation Truth and lobbies on behalf of other Iraq war veterans.

Related Links:

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

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

AMY GOODMAN: Herold Noel, a former army specialist who recently returned from Iraq, now without a home and Nicole Goodwin, a former homeless veteran who returned from Iraq, had a profile written about her in the New York Times, and ultimately found a home for her and her young daughter. She now works with “Operation Truth” and lobbies on behalf of other Iraqi war veterans. In part two of this conversation I asked Herold Noel if he could talk about what he saw in Iraq.

HEROLD NOEL: What I saw, there would be a lot of people that didn’t join the military that we will see in a million years. You understand? You seen people dying in so many different ways, it’s disgusting. You see bodies oozing from Iraqi tanks, oozing out of a hole, a hole the size of a quarter. You see ooze, skeleton pieces oozing out of the tanks, and you see inflated bodies and children — children’s body parts like a little leg hanging from one side of the street. You will see children being — dead children being put in back of trucks, and a whole bunch of nastiness, you understand? And I’m — and they’re over here crying, in the native language, I’m guessing, why are you doing this? Why are you doing this? You understand? And me, as being a father myself, looking into another father’s eyes, asking why, you understand? You understand? I had no questions — I mean, I had no answers to why this is going on. Cause I don’t know myself, I’m there to do a job. You understand? And I’m not saying I love my job, but the job I was doing is just — I was forced to do it. You understand? And if I didn’t do it, you understand, that’s my family, you understand? I’m in guilt — locked up —- I have seen children fight other children for food, for MRE’s. You understand? I seen a little girl getting stomped. Her head was getting crushed to the pavement for a bag of MRE’s. And this is -—

AMY GOODMAN: This is for ready made meals of the military.

HEROLD NOEL: Yes, the military food. They tell us not to throw it out there, you understand, for the kids. But some soldiers, they — some soldiers have a heart. You understand? They see the kids walking around with no clothes on, so we just throw —- throw them a little candy or something, just so they can eat, and -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: At night, when you — when you talked with your other —- with your fellow soldiers about what was going on, what was the conversation? What were you -—

HEROLD NOEL: The conversation — we tried to look on the — you know, the better side of things, you understand? We said, you know what? We are going to do this and we’re going to come back as heroes. We are going to come back and everybody is going to look up to us. We are in the history books now. This is how we tried to look at it. We try not to think about the death. You understand? We have — there’s times we have to sleep around the dead bodies, and stay in our trucks. The stench is — that’s a smell that you cannot get out — you always smell it. You always get a taste of that smell cause I still smell it sometimes walking the streets of New York. You understand? It’s — so, we just try to look on the better side of things, to see, you understand, to get us by. Cause if we think about it, think about it, you understand, we are just going to end up turning on each other.

NICOLE GOODWIN: You won’t function.

HEROLD NOEL: You won’t function. So, we try not to think about it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened when you came home? You have a family, a wife, three children? How were you able to integrate. In fact, back into civilian life. Is it true that you came back not having a home because the military had cut off your pay somehow?

HEROLD NOEL: Yes. When I was in Iraq, they had me AWOL. They had my AWOL. It was a mistake. They said they were supposed to put somebody else at AWOL, that was back at the red, back in the States. And they made a mistake and put my name in the mix of it. The next thing you know, I wasn’t getting paid.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know that in Iraq?

HEROLD NOEL: I didn’t know. I didn’t know, it was my wife was saying — cause my wife had to pay the rent and stuff like that. And she writes letters saying, you haven’t been getting paid. I don’t know why. And we’ll get little LES’s, the pay stubs in Iraq. They are printed out somehow and they will send it to us. My check would say zero and they said they try to get somebody back in the red to fix it, and know what’s going on. They had me AWOL for a while. And so we lost our house.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What did you say for a while, how long did they have you AWOL.

HEROLD NOEL: They had me AWOL for about the time I was there, six months.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The whole six.

HEROLD NOEL: Six, seven months, yes. They said it takes a while to fix that.

NICOLE GOODWIN: It is easier to start and to stop.

HEROLD NOEL: Yes, it is easier to stop, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Your wife wasn’t getting money?

HEROLD NOEL: No, she wasn’t getting money. Cause my wife as going to school at the time. She went to finish her college courses and whatever. My wife had dreams. You understand? So, I told her, you know, you go to school. I’ll do the work. I’m fighting for a reason. You go to school. You do what you got to do, I’ll work. She wasn’t getting paid. I wasn’t getting paid, and we lost our house. We were forced to move on-post housing, on-post housing, you can live for free. You understand, or whatever, but they changed that now. For active duty, if you are living on-post, you still have to pay rent.

NICOLE GOODWIN: Are you serious? I didn’t know that.

HEROLD NOEL: Yeah, they changed that. You still have to pay rent, but they are just going to take tout of your check. For me I wasn’t getting a check, — I have to pay back pay of the rent on the on-post housing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now did you ever get the pay situation straightened out?

HEROLD NOEL: Yeah. After I got out. But I didn’t get everything. So, I just left that alone. I didn’t want nothing to do with the military.

AMY GOODMAN: What was it like coming home to your wife and kids?

HEROLD NOEL: I thought I would have been happy, you understand? I was happy to see my family. My family is what kept me alive. I was kept a picture of my kids, a picture of my wife and they kept me alive. That’s all I wanted to go back to, but when I got back, I see the conditions that my family was living in, and it was horrible for a soldier to go through that. The house that I lived in wasn’t the same. You understand? Then they were talking about me leaving because they extended me six months and I had to get out. I had to prepare myself to get out of the on-post housing and we move into a trailer off-post, and everything was downhill from there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you were saying earlier when we talked before we came on — before we came on the show, that when you were in the military, they treated you one way, but as soon as you get out everything changes.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Can you talk about that?

HEROLD NOEL: When you are in the military, like I was saying before, when you are in the military, they treat you good. You understand? They make sure that your family is taken care of. You understand? But that’s only if you are in the military. You understand? The military is painting a pretty picture and tell you that you are going to have this and that. But that’s only if you are in the military. The military makes you think that the military is the only thing that you can do. They put that in your mind that the military is the only thing that — being in the real world is hard. They are not going to give you nothing. So the military is the only way you can go. Because they’re going to give you a nice house. They’re going to give you enough — you understand, to hang yourself, basically. You understand? They are going to make yourself feel comfortable with the military. So, you can stay in. But you are not going to see your family, because the whole time I was in the military, I only seen my family for about six months. I was deployed all the time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you came out and you attempted now to reintegrate into civilian life and get a job, what happened, what assistance did you get?

HEROLD NOEL: I didn’t get no assistance. It was not about me going out there and finding a job. Cause my uncle was in Vietnam, he didn’t make it too good. Cause he came back homeless himself. He had to go to — he turned into drugs and stuff like that. It was hard on him, you understand? He always taught me to keep my head up, and there are benefits out there that would help me, but I didn’t see it yet. You understand? I signed a whole bunch of papers to get things but I didn’t receive nothing. My family — when I got back, I was hoping to do, you know me being back, I better help my family, but it’s like — they —- the only advice people give me at the VA is, go to a shelter. You understand? That’s like -—

NICOLE GOODWIN: Same with me.

HEROLD NOEL: Exactly. So, I go to the shelter, you understand, because I have never been to a shelter before. My kids are grown. They see things. I got five-year-old twins. When they see me walking into a shelter, they know where they are going. They understand. They leave a house, a nice house with a back yard to go to a shelter. And when I went into the shelter, I thought it was disgusting. It was a whole bunch of people. I don’t know what they’re going through, but that’s not what I fought for, you understand? That’s not — why I see my friends lose their limbs, and my — some of my battle buddies die for, you understand, not to live like this, you understand? I just felt like my home, homeland that I fought for spit in my face and tell this is what you are worth for your hard struggles.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Nicole, I see you nodding your head

NICOLE GOODWIN: His story is very similar to mine, except a little addition here and there, but I would like to go back to what he said about the shelters system for a minute. I went into the EAU, the emergency assistance unit, under the Department of Homeless Services. I’d like to speak out about that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Where, the one in the Bronx?

NICOLE GOODWIN: Yes, here in New York, located in the Bronx.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Notorious.

NICOLE GOODWIN: It is literally notorious, because I have seen better conditions in Iraq.


NICOLE GOODWIN: It is literally the most disgusting place I have ever visited. My daughter was one-and-a-half when we went — no, — yes, one-and-a-half. She just turned one and for a child to see that, you are living in a house and you’re coming there, they do know. They do register something is wrong. Children are not ignorant to the problems. They cannot grasp it as a whole as adults do, but yet my daughter did see that there was a problem, that something was wrong. Mommy couldn’t — we’re not staying with the same people and seeing the same faces anymore. And I think that the biggest problem with the system is that I’m sure his case was ignored. I have my DD-214. I could not vouch for two years in the city was I was abroad for two years. You know, they say that they’re going to give a background check on your status, and it was absolutely false. They didn’t check anything in my background. The first official that once you put my social security card number into any system, anywhere in the United States, it shows that I am a veteran. It shows that I’m in the military. And it shows where I have been for the last two years. It has to. Because that goes on your permanent record. It goes with your social security. The biggest problem was that they — you know, the system, as I like to call it, because it a system, is a machine. And there’s just — you know, it ignored the problem. And the problem is that the Veterans Affairs is roped right into that. It just all — all the gears pointed one way and point a way out and my situation, I stayed for three weeks. Cause I literally went everywhere I could. I went to housing, and I applied and my application was lost. When you’re homeless, it’s three to six months wait. That’s the maximum between three and six months. Yet my application was lost. That system ignored me. So, I went to a private sector. I went to Coalition for the Homeless. Finally, somebody pointed in that direction just to advocate my problem. And they helped me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You were also lucky that at some point, The New York Times did a big profile on you.

NICOLE GOODWIN: That’s exactly how my profile was done, because I went to the Coalition for the Homeless. I was at my rope’s end, excuse me, with that situation, and I wanted the American public to know that we are not degenerates coming back to a handout. Most of the people see that the Vietnam veterans are begging because that’s their last resort because the VA has turned them down, because I don’t know if DHS was there. But systems like that they have totally ignored the problem, and drugs become a resort. Alcohol and you just become a degenerate and you fight for someone’s freedom and you are literally ignored.

AMY GOODMAN: So, once you had that piece done in The New York Times, what happened? How did things turn around.

NICOLE GOODWIN: A lot of people responded. And I was very grateful to see that somebody, even a stranger cared. Like I was telling Herold, it takes a lot to come out and tell your story. Because we’re doing — we’re breaking the taboo, so to speak. But also I got a of backlash, because there was rumors going around that the VA was putting lockdown, not having other solders do what I did, to come out and speak out against, you know, the ignorance in the system, and that’s the big problem, because silence and ignorance is worse than any weapon of mass destruction I have ever seen. It kills people. People die slowly. You know, some people — I read the newspapers, and I see a lot of people saying, oh, pray for the dead. You know, because they’re passed on. I say, no, pray for the living, because we can’t read the suffering of the dead on our shoulders. We are the ones who were there, who seen the body parts and the suffering of these children, and me being a mother, and you have to make compromises. There are children carrying weapons who are taught to kill you. And you are literally — you’re at a standstill, do you kill a child to go back home to your children? Or do you leave your children parentless? And a lot of soldiers have been getting a lot of serious backlashing because of that, but what would you do if a 12-year-old had an AK-47 in your face.


NICOLE GOODWIN: I have seen it.


NICOLE GOODWIN: I have seen it. It’s a dangerous situation. It’s only getting worse. Home and abroad.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Herold, you came home, and here you were with your wife and your children. You had a lot of rage and horror inside at what you had experienced in Iraq. How did your relationship with your wife and your kids change?

HEROLD NOEL: It changed dramatically, you understand, and it traumatizing for my wife and my children, because me — my children see me and my wife arguing a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you argue a lot before you went to Iraq?

HEROLD NOEL: No. We didn’t argue. You know, I was a good person to talk to. I was a giving person. You understand? My wife loved to be around me, you understand? I never had this anger problem. I never went out of hand, you understand. I was just a calm person. Anger would be the last thing that I will do. I will talk you to, and I — everything was easy, but right now, my wife, we argue a lot. You understand? Because of the situation that I am going through because my wife don’t think it’s fair that, what I’m going through. She says, well, you almost gave your life and this is how they’re treating you. And she sometimes thinks I’m doing something wrong, but I tell her, I’m not. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do. To get help, but they — they just turning me back to the shelter. When I took my wife to the shelter, you understand, she looked at me and was like, you expect me to stay here with my children. You understand. I’m not going to do this. This is where they guided me to.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the VA helping you psychologically. Have they talked about the issue of post-traumatic stress?

HEROLD NOEL: Yes, I am seeing a Dr. Lieberman. He has been helping me out. He’s trying everything that he can through the VA but they said he needs — he needs the help, you understand? It’s like the VA needs help to help us.


HEROLD NOEL: You understand? They say they’re not getting that. They got limited funds or limited ways they can go, you understand? They don’t have a lot to work with, so it’s just like we’re left on the street.

AMY GOODMAN: Herold Noel and Nicole Goodwin. Herold Noel, former army specialist, recently returned from Iraq, now without a home. Nicole Goodwin, formerly homeless, now has a home.

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