Houston Fast Becoming A Hot Spot For Helping VAs

Maurice Barskdale, Vietnam Veteran
Over 22,000 war veterans call Houston home, the second largest vet population in the United States. And the largest number of post 9/11 vets. So as local soldiers return in their droves from Iraq and Afghanistan, Houston veterans' programs are making sure their sometimes difficult re-entry into civilian life goes as smoothly as possible.

Maurice Barksdale stands out from the crowd. Not just because he’s over 6 feet tall, but because he’s wearing a baseball cap that proudly displays he’s a Vietnam War veteran.  He lives in designated veteran housing just off Main Street in Midtown. A place where he regularly comes across Iraq and Afghan vets. While the location of his war in Vietnam and their wars differ, some things are awfully familiar.

"I see the look in their eye. I know that look. I talk to them, come on down, have a soda. We grab a smoke. We’ll talk. I don’t go there. I know where they are. I don’t need to know what you did, you certainly don’t wanna know what I did. But the fact is it’s gonna be ok. You’re home, welcome home. They need to hear that. Nobody welcomed me home, no one."

Barksdale was 17 in 1975 when he enlisted so when he came back to what he calls “civilian life” eight years later it wasn’t easy. He didn’t know where to go and often times the most logical place for someone who’s served in the military is  ...

"Going back into the military. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I felt angry. I thought there was more. The only thing that was offered that I was aware of was education and medical."

That was then and this is now. Right around 2007 there was a lot of media noise about lack of re-integration help for vets trying to make a new life for themselves outside the military. So that’s where people like Tom Mitchell State Director with the Veteran’s Initiative come in. 

"They need to learn how to survive on a job. They need to learn how to be on a job where it’s not life and death. You would think that would be an easy thing, but it’s not necessarily. It takes a while."

The Veteran’s Initiative aimed to fill the cracks that other veterans had slipped through. Buddy Grantham Director of Veterans’ Affairs in Houston says the best way to do that is by focusing on their individual needs.

"Each one is unique, that’s why it requires more than just one cookie cutter system of job and placement. Folks need to be able to assist them in preparing for their job, and also there’s the other side of the coin where we have to work with Human Resource professionals in companies on what to expect and how to gainfully employ veterans."

And it seems to be working. Barksdale again:

"With the help of veteran organizations, especially since I been here in Houston. I’ve never been in a city or a state that really cared about veterans the way I do since I been here in Texas."

But while the city can help with work, housing and re-integrating into civilian life the one thing they can’t do is remove the memory of what happened.

"Whatever we do in life, wherever we go we will always be veterans. They gotta work it through their head, they have to live it. Time really do heal all wounds, but you have to work that time. There’s still some Vietnam veterans even here that’s still living back there."

Bio photo of Edel Howlin

Edel Howlin

Producer, Houston Matters

Edel is a producer on Houston Matters and reporter for PBS’s Newshour Weekend...