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“When I Came Home:” An Interview with the Filmmaker

November 15th, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

When filmmaker Dan Lohaus learned that there were over 150,000 homeless Vietnam War veterans, he decided he wanted to take action. He started reading up on the subject, visiting assistance programs, and talking to vets who were living on the streets, filming their experiences along the way with the intention of turning his footage into a documentary on the subject of homeless vets from the Vietnam war. At the start of the Iraq War, though, Lohaus’ documentary project took a slightly different focus as the veterans started telling Lohaus that, soon enough, soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq would find themselves without options. Enter Iraq War veteran Herold Noel. It was his story, his fight to get assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), that became the focus of Lohaus’ When I Came Home. The film is a sharp, candid look at the struggles our war heroes face when they find themselves unable to work due to injury or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and unable to get benefits from the VA.

Lohaus is currently working on another documentary that will follow the experience of Vietnam veterans and the 10-year battle it took to have PTSD recognized as a mental disorder. He took a break to talk to Hulu about When I Came Home, which he screened at a benefit for Services for the UnderServed (susinc.org) on Veteran’s Day. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Hulu: How did you decide to do a documentary about homeless vets?
Filmmaker Dan Lohaus:
Back in 2002, I was interested in making a documentary about homeless Vietnam vets; that was really the focus of this film. I had found there are over 150,000 homeless Vietnam vets. I wanted to look at their experience when they come home. Staggering numbers of Vietnam vets ended up in prison when they came home, or ended up ending their lives prematurely. That statistic, that there were over 150,000 homeless Vietnam vets, just really made me angry. I just felt like so many of these guys were in their late 50s or early 60s, and had been out in the streets for years. This is kind of the final chapter for them in terms of being ignored and forgotten when they came home in the early ’70s.

So that’s where it all started, and as I started filming homeless Vietnam vets out on the street, the war in Iraq started. Once that war started, all the Vietnam vets started telling me to keep my eyes open for kids coming out of Iraq, because they were like “This VA is so backlogged, we can’t even get help from the VA. We’re still fighting for our benefits, and we just don’t understand how a whole new generation is going to come and get taken care of.” Then I started seeing little articles on the Internet about homeless Iraq veterans. The first one was in the Boston Globe, about a woman named Vanessa Turner. She’d gotten back from Iraq and ended up homeless in the Boston area. Basically, at that point I decided this is ridiculous; I couldn’t believe this was happening again. I wanted to find homeless Iraq veterans to include in the film and kind of show how history’s repeating itself. And then [in late 2004, early 2005], I found Herold [Noel] in New York. It just took off from there.

Who is Herold?
Herold Noel, he was in the Army, in the 37 Cavalry out of Fort Stewart, Georgia.

How did you find him, and why do you think his story is representative of others?
He was the subject of a cover article for this newspaper here in New York called The Indypendent. They did a cover story about Herold called “The Invisible Soldier.” I just couldn’t believe it — here was this guy in my neighborhood, going through this. At the same time, I had been going to this one organization in [Bedford-Stuyvestant] called Black Veterans for Social Justice, where I had found a couple other Iraq vets, but they weren’t quite ready to be in the film. It just so happens that Herold was also going to Black Veterans for Social Justice to try to get some help. My contact there told him “Hey, if you want to be in a movie, there’s this guy looking for homeless Iraq vets.” Herold was just really determined. The first day I met him, he said “I want you to document this, I want you to show people what a soldier has to go through when they come home. I want you to follow me to the end of the earth with your camera. I want the country to see what we have to go through.” He was a perfect subject. Right after the first day of filming, he was obviously the main subject for the film.

Where is he today?
He’s still in New York. He’s actually working with a non-profit, Urban Neighborhood Services in Coney Island, and he started a veterans’ project there. He’s really trying to reach out to low-income vets that are coming back to the neighborhood where he kind of grew up, just trying to make sure they know where to go for help. He’s just trying to make sure that what happened to him doesn’t happen to anyone else.

It seems like the subject of homeless Iraq war veterans is quiet, not something you hear about in the press very often.
Back in 2003, when I was first starting to see little articles on the Internet, I had a list of organizations that help homeless veterans. I would call them and say, “Hey, are you guys dealing with any homeless Iraq or Afghanistan veterans?” They’d say, “No, we’ve had maybe one come through our program, but they’re doing OK now. We’re ready for them; we’re expecting to see them.” Now, if I call those same organizations, every one of them has 10 or 15 homeless Iraq or Afghanistan veterans in their program. According to the VA, there’s somewhere around 2,000 at this point, but it’s so frustrating, because it’s the same thing that happened with Vietnam vets. I just feel like it’s a generation getting swept under the rug. There have been some stories about them here and there, but I really feel like people don’t know. When they hear what my movie’s about, the first thing they say is, “What? There are homeless Iraq veterans? That’s ridiculous.”

Before this, were you all that aware of homeless veterans? Was this something you’d already been involved with?
Yeah, I had been working in the non-profit world and helped start a couple of organizations that help employ homeless people and, ever since college, volunteering at soup kitchens and stuff. I think along the way, I met a lot of Vietnam vets. I think I was aware in the back of my head that there were a lot of Vietnam vets on the streets, but it was only when I started doing research on it that I really found out the numbers. It’s pretty staggering. One in four homeless people is a veteran, which is kind of staggering. Twenty-five percent of our whole homeless population are vets. I was aware of homelessness among veterans, but it was only when I said “OK, I’m going to do some research; I think I want to do a film on this,” when I really discovered the numbers.

What moment most stands out for you from shooting this film?
The first thing I filmed was the San Diego Stand Down for homeless veterans in 2002. The Stand Down is meant to be a three-day event where homeless veterans can come off the street and live as a community. They actually get like a coat check for all of their stuff. There’s no drinking, there’s no drugs. They just come in off the street, they live in these military-style tents, and they live in a little community together where they can get not only hot food and new clothes but dental care, too, and they can get hooked up with benefits counselors. They’re constantly hearing speeches from formerly homeless veterans. The event is all about motivating these guys to see that there is an option to get off the street, and that there are people out there that care about them. So I went to this event, and there were 1,000 homeless veterans that came in off the street. Of that 1,000, over the course of the weekend, about 400 or so kind of saw the light and were ready to jump into a program. They had kind of had enough and were inspired by everybody there. This was the very first thing I was filming, I was like “Oh my God, we’re about to see 400 homeless veterans get taken off the street. They’re ready to go, they haven’t drank in a few days, they’re signing up for these programs.” In the course of filming, I was trying to see if I could follow someone who was going to get into a program. That’s when I learned that, in fact, even though 400 vets had made the choice to try to get into a program, there were literally only seven spots available in San Diego County. It just became so frustrating.

So here’s this great event called Stand Down that really connects with these vets, it gets them off the street, it gets them to come in and start thinking about what they need to do to get out and get off the street. I was so frustrated when I learned that only seven guys would get a shot at getting into a supported housing program. It just became really obvious to me. If the money was there to create these supportive housing communities — and there are some great models out there like US Vets, which has supportive housing communities across the country, and there’s one in San Diego called the Veterans Village of San Diego, which has like an 85 percent success rate. It was just really frustrating. It became really clear to me. A guy in the movie, the founder of Stand Down, really says it best: “Why is it that we keep asking why there are so many homeless veterans when we don’t ask where are the resources?” It just became really clear. If the government would put the money into supportive housing programs in combination with the Stand Down event, we could literally get these guys off the street. It was really tough for me. That was the first thing I filmed, I got to know a bunch of these guys who decided that was the weekend they were going to get off the street, and I watched them have to pack up and go back out on the street. It just really, really pissed me off, but I think it was a good thing because it pissed me off enough …That was a real point where I decided I was going to have to make this film.

Are you seeing that the same factors that contributed to Vietnam veterans becoming homeless are the same for the new Iraq war veterans?
I think overall, it’s definitely different. It’s 40 years later, but some of the same things are happening to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I think, in general, the nation is familiar with the term post-traumatic stress disorder, which is good. I think it’s basically, if you’re affected by war and you’re coming home with PTSD, oftentimes, it’s tough to hold a job. If you can’t find a job, it’s hard to pay rent. It’s a downward spiral that I think veterans of any war can fall into. Just like Vietnam vets … We have 1 million Iraq or Afghanistan veterans who are waiting on decisions from the VA on their disability claims. That’s a staggering number. It was at 600,000 earlier this year, and now it’s at a million. There are literally a million veterans who are not able to work right now who are waiting for a decision from the VA on whether they’re eligible to receive benefits and how much they’ll receive. If they’re unable to work because they’re injured, and if they’re waiting on these benefits, I don’t know how we expect them not to end up homeless. I think vets are a very proud people. For some vets, they maybe didn’t leave a good home situation. Once again, they’re coming back to an economy that’s hurting. I think there are similar factors for any generation of vets that come home. When vets don’t get the proper care they need for PTSD, a lot of them will to start to self-medicate. That’s a factor in that whole downward spiral, as well.

To learn more about this film and how you can help homeless veterans in your area, please visit to WhenICameHome.com.

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