POCATELLO — An Oregon native, 29-year-old Marine Corps veteran Brennan Silver has heard some of what many would consider horror stories involving chronically homeless veterans.
A facet of homelessness in America, Silver said that for every four people without a home in this country, one is a veteran who dedicated their lives for the greater good of all Americans.
“There is a lot of trauma within these veterans and the ones I meet the most are from Vietnam where there are just so many layers,” Silver said. “Not just the trauma of the conflict but the lack of reception that they received coming home. A lot of guys buried their uniforms, burned their medals and had such a poor welcoming by the American people that really they tried to bury it all and move on with life.”
Also someone who holds a Master’s degree in clinical health, Silver said that anytime you try to bury trauma it rots you from the inside out.
“Eventually, that leads to substance abuse and addictions will eventually threaten your housing situations, employment and usually you burn some bridges,” Silver said. “Though the VA has come a long way, it’s far from perfect but it’s a lot better than it used to be.”
For more than a month, Silver has been walking starting from an area near Portland, Oregon, with an end point of Fort Collins, Colorado. During his journey, Silver has stopped at veterans’ centers and homeless shelters along the way to interview veterans about their stories.
On Friday, Silver was in Pocatello and stopped at the Bannock County Veterans Memorial, the Idaho State Veterans Home and the Veterans Student Services Center on the campus of Idaho State University in Pocatello. On Saturday, he stopped at the Freedom LZ.
“I’ve heard real horror stories from veterans who were treated by the VA back in the ’70s and ’80s,” Silver said. “They talk about things that as a mental health professional myself I was shocked and appalled to learn was happening as recently as the ’80s, let alone by the VA or federal government.”
One story involved a veteran struggling with depression at a time when Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had yet to receive any research. And the treatment method for this depression was shock therapy.
“That is such a primal, barbaric attempt to treat something like trauma and depression,” Silver said.
“I met a guy that as a result of shock therapy lost 75 percent of his memories. He doesn’t remember the day his children were born or his wedding day.”
Silver said that it wasn’t until the last 15 years that PTSD had been talked about.
“We had language like shellshock but that was just a way to try and explain why a vet was ‘off’ following the war,” Silver said. “I’ve met guys who said they went years without knowing they had PTSD. I’ve heard a couple stories of guys who were in conflicts and basically have been punishing themselves for things that they were a part of or couldn’t stop.”
Silver continued, “When someone has all the resources and community partners and the person is just unwilling to take a helping hand, usually that person has some deep, deep, deep unresolved feelings of guilt and shame about what happened overseas during their wartime.”
Over the years, many veterans have developed a mistrust for the VA, because they came home and had terrible experiences, Silver said. And 20 or 30 years later, even though the VA has changed, they still don’t trust the federal government.
“The vets see and hear what happens with Syrian refugees and it frustrates them to see them being provided housing, welfare, and assistance to get them into employment and part of society,” Silver said. “The vets who have been sleeping out in the parks hear this and go, ‘Well what about us?’ The (federal government) is willing to devote all these resources to take care of these people from another country but we are out here living in a park trying not to die of heat stroke.”
After spending four years as a combat sergeant with the Marine Corps, with deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan where he fought alongside British forces pushing into two Taliban strongholds, Silver tried for several years to get a job working with veteran centers.
“I wanted to do some reintegration work with vets coming back but the doors just weren’t opening,” Silver said. “That’s when I decided to make a difference on my own.”
In June, Silver published a book titled “Communitas: Light at the End of the World, with which he captures the raw pain of war and tragedy and the healing power of deep friendship and belonging.
“In this country, 25 percent of all people living on the streets or in unstable housing is a vet, which is a real shame especially when you talk about a country that says we support our troops,” Silver said. “When I resigned my last job, which was doing school-based therapy with teens I probably needed a little bit of journey and wilderness therapy just to cleanse myself. But I thought it needed to be something bigger than myself.”
So, Silver thought that he would start walking from Oregon to Colorado and along the way, he turned it into a way to talk about the vets that have been forgotten.
“I’ve had my own experiences because trekking along I’ve slept in ditches, revetments down by the river, on beaches, sandbars and in parks,” Silver said. “While I go around and I interview these vets I find they have been totally overlooked by the system and feel totally forgotten and betrayed. In my journey, I get a very small taste of dealing with the heat, dehydration, bugs and having no security at night.”
The taste Silver talks about is something homeless veterans live with day in and day out, 24 hours per day, 365 days a year.
Just a few days ago, Silver was in Thousand Springs outside of Hagerman and was experiencing significant pain in his feet for the past 10 days.
“I was in a super remote area and the sensation was like my foot was snapping in half,” Silver said. “I’m in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception and had been trying to push myself into Twin Falls to make it to the doctor. I got to this point where it was unbearable and I could barely walk.”
After hobbling his way to a resort, Silver used a landline and called Disabled American Veterans, a program that helps shuttle veterans to and from appointments.
“I had to call for assistance and both as a former Sergeant in the Marines and as a guy who struck out saying he was going to this all by himself, that was humbling.”
The doctor in Twin Falls said that in addition to a high ankle sprain, Silver has a broken toe and a bad bone spur that was cutting into his tendons and soft tissue, which caused severe nerve shock throughout his foot.
“I look at the doctor and asked him if he could advise me to walk another 900 miles to Colorado if I could get my pack down to 65 pounds,” Silver said. “He looks at me like I’m nuts and he said ‘No, I can’t recommend that.’”
Though he realizes he might not make it to Fort Collins in the way he anticipated, Silver is not giving up.
“I’m just caught in the middle of going, ‘What is this all about?’ Silver said. “Is it just about me walking the full 1600 miles and proving a point, or is this about the vets and the stories I’m encountering? I will make it to Colorado. It might involve some thumbing but I’m going to get there.”
Silver conducts all his interviews in video format. When his journey is complete, he hopes to turn the raw footage into a series of small videos that he will post to his website, BrennanSilver.com, and to his Facebook page for free.
“I want to do it well so that people can sit with and understand it even if you haven’t served in the military,” Silver said. “The biggest thing that comes to the front of my mind is educating the public. It’s amazing the ignorance. People have no idea of the emotional and psychological struggles that returning warriors have.”
Silver continued, “When you talk about veterans that are homeless these are the guys that have probably struggled the most. Homelessness is its own trauma and when you layer that on top of everything they went through in war and in coming home and not feeling understood, I really want the American people to sit with that. Not in a guilt trip way but in an eye-opening way. I want to show who these people are and what they struggled with.
For Silver, this journey is an attempt to uncover and transcribe the stories of so many veterans that are overlooked by the system, those who are forgotten.
“When you see someone with a sign, in the park with a mane of long hair and some camo pants on I would hope that you not be so quick to pass judgement about whether they have an alcohol or drug problem, or think that you shouldn’t approach them for whatever reason” Silver said. “I want people to sit with the raw stories of these men and women because that’s all they are, men and women. But not only that, these are men and women who put their lives on the line to serve this country.”