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Book chronicle's Iraq War veteran's struggle with PTSD and homelessness

Saturday is Veteran’s Day, but nationwide there are thousands of veterans who are unhoused or at risk for homelessness. Andrew Smithwick is one of them. A decorated Marine, he now suffers from PTSD and lives on the streets, likely in Albuquerque. His father, Patrick, chronicled the family’s efforts to find Andrew in the new book “War’s Over, Come Home: A Father’s Search For His Son, Two-Tour Marine Veteran of the Iraq War.”

Patrick lives in Maryland and the last time he saw his son was in 2018 after Andrew was arrested for trespassing on Santa Ana Pueblo. The Smithwick family was able to get him to a hospital for evaluation, but it wasn’t the solution they hoped for.

PATRICK SMITHWICK: They let him out within about 20 minutes. They said he was lucid, and he had his rights. And so he was released. We were outside, and every other family was all there and people were crying. And we were asking him to let us help him, was kneeling in front of them trying to talk to him, his hands were in handcuffs. And I tried to communicate with him. But really, it was not very successful. He refused to admit that I was his father. So that was the last time I've really seen him face to face.

KUNM: I mean, you had an arrest warrant from another state, you had paperwork in place to have him committed involuntarily to get treatment with a psychiatrist at that hospital. But it still didn't work. It

SMITHWICK: Right. That time, my son had all the guardianship because my son lives in Denver, and we talked to the top administrator of the hospital, we talked to the psychiatrist, and it was all set up. Then we thought that he was safely in the psychiatric ward, and then we'd be able to communicate with him. Well, first of all, they wouldn't allow us to communicate with him. The police blocked us. And with his handcuffs on, they took him in the car, and they just drove him wherever he wanted to go. And that's happened many times. When we had him in Loma Linda, in the VA hospital for about 10 or 12 days in California, Veterans Affairs did an incredible job. And what they showed was under the treatment, he finally, at that point, stopped hallucinating and stopped acting schizophrenic and started really communicating with the chaplain and told the chaplain he wanted to get out and become a counselor and help people who had trauma from the wars. Then he began to not take the medicine. Then one day, he just said, “You know, I'm getting out of here.” And he left and he went back into the vortex, downward spiral into homelessness again.

KUNM: Have you seen improvements in any of these systems? Do you have thoughts about what needs to change?

SMITHWICK: The most successful thing -- I did a book signing in Annapolis, Maryland. And the host invited the person that ran the homeless shelter there. She started a whole program called Housing First. And the whole theory is to get the homeless person in it, whether it's a veteran or somebody else, and to provide them housing to bring them in, and then let them start trying to get their lives on track. Over the last 10 years, Veterans Affairs and HUD have provided housing for 40,000 veterans. And the very tough thing for us is, the toughest thing is, he doesn't want to talk to his family. He has all this anxiety about his family. He thinks everyone's out to get him. He's very, very, extremely paranoid. So what we're working on doing is trying to get someone, a perhaps a veteran or someone like that, that can when Andrew is walking along somewhere, and if someone can find him, they can approach him and talk to him and just explain that there's so many different avenues. There's so many ways that he could be living a better life.

We think he's still in the Albuquerque, New Mexico region. There is a retired police officer who now works in real estate and he drives around a lot. And every once in a while, every month or two, he'll send us a picture that he'll have of Andrew -- tall, thin, beard, long hair. He's actually very fit. He's probably the fittest homeless person out there. He gets up and runs about four miles every day and does his Marine Corps exercises. And then he kind of hikes all afternoon. So we think he's in fairly good physical health.

KUNM: Would you like to see Veterans Affairs, the US government doing more in cases like this?

SMITHWICK: They could have a much better decompression. Andrew was fighting in a firefight in Iraq. And then he came back to Twentynine Stumps, as they call it, Twentynine Palms. And then about four or five months later, he was released from the military. And when he got out, you know, he was used to this adrenaline rush. These young men, they get out there, and when they're in the military -- it was great for Andrew because everything is super structured. And he knew exactly what time he's supposed to be everywhere and what he's supposed to do. And that's how he was, but then when they get out, they might not know how to get a car, how to rent a house, how to do all the different things you have to do, get insurance. And if there was more of a time for decompression, and even like a some sort of camp or something where they taught them how to do this. I think it would be a great idea. Then the other thing is that we civilians, when we see young men who are getting out and they're starting a new life, you know, we could make a little extra effort to give them some advice or maybe say come by my office and wonder if you're interested in radio or journalism.


Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.