Columns » Max Brantley

The unknown soldiers

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The controversy over relocation of a clinic for veterans to an abandoned car dealership on Main Street is a testament to the country's fleeting patriotism.

Politicians are quick with a salute and a tearful word on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The fighting military is also an ever-ready shield for congressional budget busters.

But when the troops come home from fighting our wars with adjustment problems, they aren't so cherished. For example:

The VA treats all kinds at its current center at 2nd and Ringo. Some have alcohol and drug problems. Some are having a hard time finding work. Some are haunted by their time in combat. Some need a meal. Others need help finding shelter. Some are homeless. They have in common two things — 1) they've actively sought help and 2) sunshine patriots promised never to forget them.

The city of Little Rock and U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin haven't been sympathetic to the move to bigger quarters. They don't want the vets on Main Street. Many neighbors don't either. Mayor Mark Stodola reacted in angry indignation to the idea. He'd prefer to shunt them out past the neat rows of crosses in the National Cemetery to a more distant, poorer neighborhood. Veterans have thus been transformed from a collection of people to a singular community blight. It's misguided; it's hypocritical on the part of the flag wavers, and, in human terms, it's just sad.

I'd like to give the floor to Dr. Tina McClain, the chief of Central Arkansas Veterans Health Services and a psychiatrist. She wrote the following to the Downtown Neighborhood Association.

"Regardless of location, children in Little Rock are exposed to individuals with mental illness. Overall 1 in 4 people have some type of mental illness, and the idea that the 'mentally ill' are not already present in the area is simply wrong. They are there, and go unrecognized. They live their lives just like those fortunate enough to not have a mental health condition. Untreated or inadequately treated mental illness is one of many contributing factors to homelessness. The fear related to putting children at risk should be higher today since the street homeless already in the area are not in treatment.

"Evidence shows that this program will decrease the number of homeless on the streets, not increase the number. This program provides treatment. Several current enrollees in our program attended the DNA meeting Jan. 12, and never became hostile, aggressive, or otherwise displayed any behavior other than that of perfect ladies and gentlemen, despite the barrage of derogatory comments they heard. I would be surprised if most in attendance even knew they were 'homeless veterans.' One of those veterans, the speaker, was even challenged when he attempted to vote as a resident in the downtown area, presumably because he simply lives his life in the area and was not known to the DNA.

"Stigma and ignorance lead to fear, and fear exaggerates perceived risks. CAVHS, regardless of our clinic location, will continue to combat this stigma through education, responsiveness, and compassion. CAVHS will staff the clinic with VA police officers to address any problems requiring police intervention. Again, not all veterans treated in our Veterans Day Treatment Program suffer from mental illness.

"Lastly, it should also be recognized that the proposed site for the [city of Little Rock] Day Resource Center on Confederate Blvd is also near a neighborhood, though not as large a neighborhood, and is near a magnet school. I don't believe the risks would be any higher to the children in the downtown location than at the Confederate Blvd. location."

I'm inclined to believe her.

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