It struck like a thunderbolt when I read the news report that U.S. veterans of the war in Iraq are already beginning to appear in our homeless shelters. That outrageous reality shows a tragic unwillingness to learn from past wars, especially Vietnam, when veterans flooded shelters with an array of physical, mental, emotional and (dare I say it?) spiritual disorders.

“I have talked to enough (shelters) to know we are getting them. It is happening, and this nation is not prepared for it,” Linda Boone of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans told reporter Mark Benjamin. Her group, reportedly the largest organization assisting homeless veterans, says it has identified nine veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Why should this be surprising? What did we expect? We are sending (with whatever good intentions) thousands of our bright, hopeful and peace-loving youth to face the reality of killing and being killed. We must realize some will die, others will be injured, and many will have the fiber of their innermost being ripped to shreds.

We should be able to agree on this: Those asked to fight our wars, to risk life and limb, and to endanger mind and spirit ought to be treated with dignity and understanding upon return. That at least means a living wage, meaningful health coverage and a fit place to live.

My church, Crievewood Baptist, participates in the Room in the Inn. During the coldest months, numerous local churches provide an evening meal, a shower, a warm place to sleep, some breakfast and a snack lunch for some of the homeless. Occasionally, some other minor assistance is included.

I have learned much about the homeless from stories they have shared. These are not evil people experiencing some divine retribution for their sinful ways. Many are part of a population of homeless working people. Once they lived lives full of promise but now shoulder burdens too heavy for them to bear–mental illness, unstable families, upheavals in life and substance addiction.

Driven by a troubled economy, requests for emergency shelter by families have increased in our country by 7 percent this year on top of the 13 percent increase in 2003. And in Nashville, veterans continue to make up a greater percentage of the homeless population than the national average.

The wealthiest country in history should be aghast that any American must live on the streets. And yet there is something especially egregious about those called on to fight our battles living on the streets they did so much to preserve. In the face of deployment, call-up, extension and recall, separation from family and work, our veterans deserve assurances they will be cared for if they incur disabilities as they fight on our behalf and behest.

The sound bites of politicians echo: “We support the troops.” And when a camera and Thanksgiving dinner are at hand, they salivate at the opportunity to stand with our troops. Our representatives in both parties are keen on image and talk but woefully short on effective plans for long-term realities.

Are troubled veterans returning home to yet another predictable contingency for which Washington is totally unprepared? They deserve real service, not lip service.

Middle Tennessee U.S. Reps. Marsha Blackburn, Jim Cooper and Bart Gordon: Please, less rhetoric and more action!

Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: How about less mockery in response to honest questions from soldiers and more actual results?

Morality was all the rage in the recent election. But the ancient prophets remind us that morality never has been and never will be a matter of just talk. It was and is and will always be how we walk among those around us when they are at their weakest and neediest.

Robert O. Byrd is a member of Crievewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., and a professor of Religion at Belmont University. This column appeared previously in The Tennessean and is used with permission.

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