Tony Mooneyham said he went to hell and came back to a place where no one wanted anything to do with him.
He served as an infantryman in the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1970.
“It wasn’t like World War II, where everyone came back a hero,” Mooneyham said. “In Vietnam, we didn’t win anything. People called us baby killers. They thought we were animals.”
After returning from Vietnam, Mooneyham became addicted to drugs and alcohol. He had anger problems and post-traumatic stress disorder, and suffered from vivid nightmares. He found it hard to hold a steady job in Springfield, Mo., finally hitting rock bottom in 2000. He was homeless for two years.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 313,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Jennifer Templeton of Truman Veterans Hospital said veterans make up 25 percent of the homeless population in Columbia, which translates to 220 homeless veterans.
It is not uncommon for veterans to slip into homelessness after returning from war. They often suffer from substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic mental illness, feelings of distrust and resentment and economic difficulties. Forty-seven percent of homeless veterans are from the Vietnam era, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
“The only way I knew how to deal with my anger was with a gun, like in the war,” Mooneyham said. “I did drugs because if you’re high then you don’t think about it. I just couldn’t fit back into society. I just saw things most kids at 18 don’t see.”
Mooneyham eventually made his way to Columbia and entered the drug-rehabilitation program at Truman Veterans Hospital. He said he’s been clean for 15 months.
The hospital introduced a homeless veterans program in 1999 as part of a national effort that began in the late 1980s.
To better assess the needs of homeless veterans in local communities, the VA conducts an annual survey nationwide. In Columbia, this year’s survey was released Monday during a seminar at Truman Veterans Hospital that focused on bringing local agencies, social workers, hospital employees and veterans together.
Templeton, who serves as an advocate for homeless veterans, said the main problems in Columbia are finding transitional housing, permanent housing, and earning a decent wage.
Another problem veterans have is actually going to get help.
“Veterans are very distrustful because they were promised certain things after the war, and when they returned they were not helped at all,” Templeton said.
Templeton said the hospital hopes to organize a one- to three-day event, similar to efforts in St. Louis and Kansas City, to provide eye care, dental care, legal assistance, housing information, job information, clothing and haircuts from volunteers and service agencies.
Mooneyham now volunteers his time to help other veterans realize there is hope.
“It’s hard to ask for help,” Mooneyham said. “You think that nobody cares and that you can’t trust anyone. I’m here to tell people to not throw up their hands and say ‘screw it!’ and die. I want a better life than what I have. I just hope we can get this homeless program off the ground.”