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Wednesday, July 5, 2006 - Page updated at 10:36 AM

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Iraq vets returning to U.S. face another battle — homelessness

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Herold Noel had nowhere to call home after returning from military service in Iraq. He slept in his Jeep, taking care to find a parking space where he wouldn't get a ticket.

"Then the nightmares would start," says the former Army private first class, who drove a fuel truck in Iraq. "I saw a baby decapitated when it was run over by a truck; I relived that every night." Across the nation on any evening, hundreds of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan like Noel, 26, are homeless, according to government estimates.

The reasons are many. For some, residual stress from daily insurgent attacks and roadside bombs makes it tough to adjust to civilian life; some can't navigate government-assistance programs; others can't afford a house or apartment.

They are living on the edge in towns and cities from Washington state to California and Florida. Some of the hardest hit are in New York City, where housing costs "can be very tough," says Peter Dougherty, head of the federal government's Homeless Veterans Program.

As a member of the National Guard, Nadine Beckford patrolled New York train stations after the Sept. 11 attacks and served a year in the Persian Gulf region.

But when she returned home from Iraq, she found her storage locker had been emptied and her bank account had been depleted. She thinks her boyfriend took everything and "just vanished."

Six months after her return to the United States, she lives in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, sharing a room with eight other women and attending a job-training program. Her parents live in Jamaica and are barely making ends meet, she says.

"I'm just an ordinary person who served. I'm not embarrassed about my homelessness, because the circumstances that created it were not my fault," says Beckford, 30, who was a military-supply specialist at a U.S. base in Iraq, a sitting duck for around-the-clock attacks "where hell was your home."

It was a "hell" familiar to Noel during his eight months in Iraq. But it didn't stop when he returned home to New York last year and couldn't find a job to support his wife and three children. Without enough money to rent an apartment, he turned to the housing programs for vets, "but they were overbooked," Noel says.

While he was in Iraq, his family had lived in military housing in Georgia.

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In New York, the family ended up in a Bronx shelter "with people who were just out of prison, and with roaches," Noel said. "I'm a young black man from the ghetto, but this was culture shock. This is not what I fought for, what I almost died for. This is not what I was supposed to come home to."

There are about 200,000 homeless vets in the United States, according to government figures. About 10 percent are from either the 1991 Gulf War or the current one, and about 40 percent are Vietnam veterans.

Noel doesn't blame the Army, which "helped make my dreams come true," he says, recalling the military-base life in Georgia and in South Korea that his family enjoyed before his deployment to Iraq.

"I had a house, a car; they gave me everything they promised me," he said. "Now it's up to the government and the people we're defending to take care of their soldiers."

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