The Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan is set to wind down next year and as battle-scarred soldiers come home, some will find that home in the streets.
Veterans who fail to adjust to life outside the military will join other wandering ex-soldiers who have fought wars or kept the peace around the world and who find themselves living on the streets or in the bush.
A fortunate few may find themselves at Cockrell House, a new shelter for homeless veterans.
Up until a month ago John Vassallo, who served as part of deployments to Kosovo and Afghanistan, was living in Victoria's Streetlink shelter. Born in Montreal and raised in Cape Breton, Mr. Vassallo joined the forces at age 21. Now 34, he served three years in the Kosovo conflict and then five years on the USS John C. Stennis, an American aircraft carrier that supported operations in Afghanistan. His wife left him, taking their young daughter, saying he was away too much; Mr. Vassallo said he has not been able to find them since.
"When I got out of the military, I did not know one single person other than my family," he said. "I'd been in a grocery store 10 times all my adult life."
Once someone enlists, the military becomes their culture. Intense training, "virtual brainwashing" and a life spent separated from society alters people, said Colonel Pat Stogran, who in 2007 was appointed Canada's first Veterans Ombudsman.
"Given the level of intensity in the operations, I fear for the future," said Col. Stogran, 52, a veteran himself of Bosnia and Afghanistan.
Col. Stogran predicts a surge in the number of homeless veterans. "They're coming out of the woodwork now. But that's just the tip of the iceberg," said the colonel, who in June of 2008 started the Leave Nobody Behind campaign to raise awareness of homeless vets. "Every single person we send overseas, whether it's to someone else's war or to pick up body parts in Haiti, they all come back changed people."
After Mr. Vassallos's discharge in 2006, shell-shocked by civilian life and unable to relate to people, he headed to the bush on the west side of Vancouver Island near Bamfield, where he says he spent a year living in the woods.
"But I got bush-whacked so I bought a sailboat," Mr. Vassallo said.
He lived off the land and sea, selling fish for spending money and demonstrating what Col. Stogran describes as the soldier's ability to survive tough conditions. Mr. Vassallo said he eventually abandoned the boat and moved into a Victoria hotel. A girlfriend left him after he got into the "drug scene," he said. And soon he was on the street.
Now Mr. Vassallo is living at Cockrell House, in the Victoria suburb of Colwood. Cockrell House is thought to be Canada's first shelter for homeless veterans, according to Dave Munro, a Korean vet who helped establish the privately funded facility. Currently, there's room for six, but by the end of the year, 11 spaces will be available.
Mr. Munro estimates there are at least 35 more Victoria-area veterans without a roof over their heads. One is said to be an 83-year-old female nurse who served during the Second World War.
Another Cockrell House resident is Halifax native Luke Carmichael, 69, who spent 19 years in the military, 11 of those with the Canadian Airborne Regiment. In 2000, he said, he arrived in Victoria with no money and no place to stay. He headed about 50 kilometres west to Jordan River where he lived in a tent for about a year until someone gave him a 10-metre-long trailer. To find work, he'd hitchhike into Victoria.
One day, during a visit to a Legion, he heard about Cockrell House.
"I never knew what existed, what services there were for veterans," Mr. Carmichael said.
Since last July, an outreach project in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has been providing services for homeless veterans. All of the 35 or so veterans have been men, many of them in their mid-30s, said Adrienne Alford-Burt, director of the Veterans Affairs Vancouver office.
There are almost 80,000 veterans in Canada, but the number of homeless vets is not known, said Bridget Preston, director of Veterans Affairs' Victoria office. Counting and classifying who is homeless in general is a challenge, she said.
In 2006, the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department pegged the number of homeless U.S. vets at 196,000, accounting for 26 per cent of U.S. homeless.
Special to The Globe and Mail