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Saturday, Aug 17, 2013 9:34 PM
Updated Friday, Aug 30, 2013 6:59 PM

PTSD, addiction, lack of jobs feed homelessness among Augusta veterans

Staff Writer
MICHAEL HOLAHAN
Homeless veterans Anthony Garrett, left, and Gary Leigh, middle, have lunch with Rev. Roger Gardner, right.
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Editor's Note: This article incorrectly reported the estimated number of homeless veterans in Augusta. Various agencies that serve homeless veterans estimate their numbers differently. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says there are about 85 homeless veterans, and the Augusta Warrior Project says there are only 16.

Anthony Garrett opened his Bible to the book of Isaiah, and in accordance with the prophet’s words, “raised his voice like a trumpet.”

When a crowd of homeless veterans joined the Mc­Cormick, S.C., native in worship at Augusta’s Under the Bridge ministry beneath Calhoun Expressway, Garrett was set free.

Free of the recurring nightmares where helicopters evacuate the former Army engineer’s friends after they have been fatally wounded while serving beside him in the Persian Gulf War.

Free of the constant reminders that he is broke, unemployed and alone.

Free of the stress of doing regular battle with Augusta’s job market, with no work to show for it at week’s end.

“This is the only peace I have left,” Garrett said.

By the federal government’s standards, the 51-year-old is a homeless veteran, one of a group estimated between 16 and 85 in the Augusta area known to sleep in woods, under bridges and in boarded-up houses.

Some trace their displacement to addiction and mental illness, but for most, it’s the souring economy that has uprooted them from their homes, forced them into emergency shelters or a relative’s spare bedroom.

In 2009, President Obama announced the federal government’s goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and in the past two years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has invested more than $1.1 billion to strengthen programs that find veterans jobs and housing.

Still, there are men such as Garrett. To them, homelessness has become a way of life.

“Life on the streets, it’s no fun,” Garrett said. “But I have not given up, nor am I quitting. All I want is a fair opportunity to go back to work and be a part of America like everyone else.”

Garrett was married, living in his own place and working as a forklift operator when he lost his job in a round of layoffs.

Three weeks later he found a second job as a funeral home grave digger, but was only able to do the labor-intensive work for about a year. He has two fused discs in his back, an injury from serving in Operation Desert Storm.

For the past three months, he has done carpentry work at his ex-wife’s uncle’s house in exchange for a place to lay his head.

He walks four miles every day, crossing the John L. Hixon Bridge in North Augusta, while reading the Bible scriptures recommended to him by the Rev. Roger Gard­ner, the leader of the Under the Bridge ministry, to ease his financial woes.

“The Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,” Garrett said, citing Isaiah 61. “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives.”

The 13-county area surrounding Augusta and the central Savannah River is home to 66,000 veterans. More than one-third are younger than 45, and fewer than half receive the benefits they have earned through their military service, either because they are unaware they are eligible or do not know how to navigate the federal government’s system, according to a report from the Augusta Warrior Project, a local nonprofit that aims to find veterans jobs, housing and an education.

Veterans who can move in with family are the lucky ones. Garrett’s downfall began when he and his wife divorced.

Without a stable home address and a person to share expenses, he barely made enough money to rent an apartment for $200.

When his landlord more than doubled the rent in April, Garrett became part of an elusive group that mostly couch surfs or sleeps hidden away.

Garrett recently spent two weeks in the Salvation Army’s shelter on Greene Street. The sight of evicted tenants and domestic abuse victims intensified his night terrors and sent him further into depression.

He would often wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. He would look around and begin to have a panic attack, overwhelmed of how far he had fallen.

“At that point, I realized I hit rock bottom,” Garrett said. “I had lost everything.”

The root of the problem was that Garrett’s condition was well-documented.

“Once an employer learns you are a veteran with a certain illness, they will not hire you,” he said. “You are a liability, a drain on their benefits.”

Garrett’s decline has left him frustrated and angry.

“This is not how it should be,” he said. “What’s the purpose of serving your country and putting your life on the line if when you come home your community rejects you? It’s a slap in the face.”

On Aug. 8, Garrett was scheduled to move into a Nor­wood domiciliary as part of a 90-day treatment program for his post-traumatic stress that includes job training.

Garrett said Augusta is not a good environment for recovering veterans.

“The VA is doing their part, but unless the community takes a more aggressive stance in ending veteran homelessness, we will never lead a normal life,” Garrett said.

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