On a recent day, former Vietnam soldier Dan Lyons stood in front of the dark reflective stone of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Out of the more than 58,000 names of dead and missing service members etched upon its surface, he picked out the names of his friends.
One had stepped on a power-line; another died in an explosion. Standing before the wall, Lyons thought of those men, and his own time in the war, nearly 45 years ago. The experience left an imprint upon him.
And the struggles of his fellow veterans have continued to haunt him.
Starting in January, Lyons began a 2,800-mile walk from his hometown of Reno, Nevada, to Washington, D.C. He wanted to stand in front of the wall and remember the dead. But more importantly, he wanted to speak up for the veterans who returned from the war, burdened by nightmares, addictions and homelessness.
Lyons was tired of seeing his fellow veterans sleeping under bridges and eating in soup kitchens.
According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, veterans make up about one-third of the adult homeless population. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimate that more than 67,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of the year, twice as many experience homelessness.
Lyons contacted his Nevada representatives about the problem of veteran homelessness but received generic responses. That is when decided to go to Washington himself. “And I said if I walked to Washington DC., will you give me meetings to meet with you?” Lyons asked Nevada’s two US Senators and his congressman if they would meet him. Each of them gave him an appointment, resulting three interviews from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., June 7th.
Carrying an oversized bag on his back, Lyons left his hometown in Reno, Nev., walking about 20 miles a day. On the trip, he carried a two-day supply of food and a bottle of water, walking four or five days before stopping to refill his supply of food. In his hiking backpack, he carried the basics: three shirts, two pairs of pants, four pairs of socks and six pairs of shoes. He was wearing his last shoes as he reached the District. In between towns, he slept in a tent that he carried. One a few nights, he slept in a motel or at somebody’s house, where he would do his laundry.
On the way, Lyons stopped at offices of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and VA to learn about other veterans’ issues that he needed to discuss when he got to D.C. Several news stations aired stories of his walk.
Unsure of Lyons, the police would sometimes confront him. If a TV broadcast or news article had been published on him, he often didn’t have problems with the police. Sometimes, when he showed them an article, they offered support.
On his walk to D.C., Lyons faced many unusual circumstances. “I’ve had drunk drivers try to hit me,” he said. “I’ve had people spit on me. I’ve had people throw trash at me.” Once he had a goat eat his backpack. A bear roamed into the campsite once when he pitched his tent. Venomous rattlesnakes slithered through the rocky terrains.
“It’s very scary when you’re walking on the road and you don’t know when you’ll step on a rattlesnake,” Lyons recounted.
Many nights he walked through deserts, short on water. He climbed over mountains that sometimes took eight hours to scale. Roads that Lyons walked often did not have a shoulder for hikers. “You’re this far from traffic,” he said, his hands just a few inches apart.
Lyons encountered all the change of seasons and environments: a tornado in Oklahoma, falling lumps of hail, heaps of snow, and days of thunderstorms. When it rained, he would walk regardless, go to bed soaking wet and wake up still soaking wet. Lyons, 61, said he came close to quitting every day.
But he kept going. He remembered James, a shy and gentle homeless veteran from his home town. The former soldier would carry everything that he had. He pushed a shopping cart with a huge garbage bag on the side.
“I talked to him many, many times,” said Lyons, “and he goes, ‘You know, I just gave up. After a while, after you get enough doors slammed in your face, you just kind of get the message.’ There was no way I was going to let these people down.”
The Obama Administration has set a goal of ending veterans homelessness by 2015. An annual survey found that the number of veterans homeless on any given night dropped 12 percent from January 2010 to January 2011, according to the VA and HUD. And the Department of Veterans Affairs adopted the slogan “the words ‘homeless’ and ‘veteran’ should never be used together.”
But challenges to ending veterans homelessness remain. Veterans face a number of factors that make them vulnerable to homelessness, such as the lingering effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse. They may have become estranged from loved ones or lack family and social support networks, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Many veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder also face long delays in getting the counseling they need.
“You don’t take four to eight weeks to see this person because he is ready to snap anyway,” Lyons said. Suggested as well by the NCHV, Lyons said that what veterans need is a “coordinated effort,” or as Lyons put it, a one-stop facility that provides veterans with job training, housing assistance and “everything that they needed to get back on their feet.”
A similar one-stop facility opened in D.C. in April, at 1500 Franklin Street NE. The center, which is one of 17 that the VA was opening around the country, is meant to be a comprehensive source for meeting the needs of homeless and at risk veterans.
Lyons said despite the statistic showing a drop in the number of homeless veterans, he doesn’t see much difference.“You see a lot of talk,” he said, “but when you actually go out there and talk to the guys, you just don’t see it happening.”
A number of veterans give up jobs when entering the military. Other soldiers in the reserves often find it difficult to get hired because prospective employers are concerned that they would be called off by the military.
Lyons himself experienced homelessness for about six months many years ago. He said he observed the stigma of being seen as a person without value, a “drain on city resources.”
In Reno, for instance, if a person is homeless, the state would give him or her a bus ticket to go anywhere if he or she promised never to come back. “That kind of strikes me as being a little Nazi,” he said.
Reno and other cities, including Fort Lauderdale and New York choose to describe such efforts in a more positive light. The mission of the initiative, called the Homeless Evaluation Liaison Program (H.E.L.P), is not to “send anyone in a present homeless situation to another community to suffer the same condition,” but to “reconnect people with their support systems.”
To change the perception of homelessness, Lyons started an organization in Madera, Calif., where he was formerly homeless, called Homeless Helping the Community. “Instead of taking, what can we do for you?” he had asked years ago. The organization soon won over the community, including the mayor and the police who were skeptical at first.
On the final leg of his journey to D.C., Lyons walked along the C&O trail. When he arrived in D.C., June 6th, he hadn’t showered for a week.
“I felt like ‘ouff,’” he said, making a sound with his nostrils. That same day, he gave away his tent he had carried for more than five months to a man he met on the street.
Stopping by the AARP office in DC to discuss his trip and what lay ahead, the staff offered him a hotel room for the night. He had been considering shelters but the few he checked were full, he said.
The next day, Lyons had his three visits on Capitol Hill . He met the two Nevada senators, Republican Dean Heller and Democrat Harry Reid. He also met Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei.
That same day, Heller posted a tweet on Twitter with news of his meeting with Lyons. “Honored to meet w/ @ USMC Veteran Dan Lyons this am.” Reid posted at item on his Facebook Fanpage.
“Today Dan Lyons, a veteran of the U.S. Marines that served during the Vietnam War, joined me at my Welcome to Washington breakfast,” Reid wrote. “His trip is very inspiring, and I will continue to work to make sure all veterans are properly supported after they serve.”
Lyons was heartened. He had accomplished something. He had spoken and people had listened.
“Before I left, everyone said, ‘You’re an old man,’” Lyons said. “‘There’s no way they’ll meet with you in Washington. You’re nobody.’”
And after months of walking, he had made it to Capitol Hill right on time.
“And when you can walk for six months and 2,800 miles and make your 12:30 p.m. appointment, that’s pretty okay.” Lyons said with a chuckle. “I’m proud of that.”