Back from Iraq:From the service to the streets, Pt. 2
Gary Huggins signed up for the Marines at age 18 in the fall of 2001, shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks. He served a brief stint as an administrative clerk on a Marine base stateside, and then in 2002 he was deployed first to Afghanistan and later Iraq, ending up near Falluja.
His war experience was similar to most soldiers: long, repetitive days in the scorching desert, punctuated by exploding mortars, roadside bombs, and gun-battles. Huggins saw more combat than he ever expected, and when the Marines released him with an Honorable Discharge in 2005, he had trouble dealing with his experiences in Iraq.
“When I came home,” he said, “I was different....I was kind of closed in. I wanted to bottle stuff up. At that time I really didn't want to talk to nobody.”
Struggling to readjust and unable to find a job, Huggins couldn’t afford his own apartment. Once his unemployment benefits ran out, he turned to his mother, staying on her couch and on those of friends.
“I just wanted my basic issues to be taken care of as far as employment and housing," he said.
Huggins’ mother heard about Black Veterans for Social Justice (BVSJ), a Brooklyn organization that works to get homeless veterans back on their feet, and pointed him to their office in Bed-Stuy. The group provides housing assistance, counseling, and help navigating the VA’s dense bureaucracy.
But Huggins was weary of entering into therapy.
“At the time I'm thinking, ‘what's that? Do I really want to go to an organization where they're going to counsel me and have me talk about stuff I don't want to?”
Many veterans are slow to seek help--out of pride, a lack of knowledge about available services, and a military culture that stigmatizes PTSD and other psychological injuries as weaknesses, say those that understand military culture. In many cases, it takes until a family member confronts the veteran before they will seek help.
After speaking with the group’s staff, Huggins enrolled in weekly counseling and got help applying for benefits from the VA. The organization also helped him apply for education benefits through the GI Bill and he enrolled in the New York City College of Technology.
Now Huggins works as a peer-counselor at BVSJ, helping Iraq and Afghanistan veterans struggling through the same difficult transition that he experienced.
"We're talking about guys coming home that are 24, 23, or 22,” Huggins said. “Back on the street homeless. What has the service done for them to bring them back into society and take care of them?”