Some live out of cars, some under bridges, some in the woods of northern Anoka County. They are veterans. And they are homeless.

In Anoka County, there are an estimated 335 of these armed forces members whose homecoming was shortlived.

"The Vietnam veterans say they're not going to let this happen to these people," said Duane Krueger, director of the county's Veterans Service Office. "But when somebody comes back from Iraq and they're 24 years old, the last thing at that age that you want to admit is you can't make it."

Most of them never make it to Krueger's office, which guides many of the county's 26,500 veterans through health and insurance issues, treatment for post-traumatic stress, unemployment, marital problems and questions concerning their education.

"For many of these people, it's a matter of pride," Krueger said. "People don't want to admit they're homeless.

"We have people who aren't homeless who can't ask for help. It's difficult to admit things are bad."

Portraits of homelessness

A poignant photo exhibit, presented by the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund in cooperation with the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans and the public-private partnership Heading Home Minnesota, was recently displayed at the Anoka County Government Center. The works of six photographers, including the Star Tribune's Carlos Gonzales and former Star Tribune photographer Stormi Greener, depicted how difficult life can be for homeless veterans.

"Portraits of Home II: Veterans in Search of Stable Housing in Greater Minnesota" shows Nick, a homeless ex-Army National Guardsman, living in an abandoned school bus in Freeborn County. David, an ex-Marine, lives in a deteriorating farm house. After spending 22 months in Iraq, Danny, who joined the National Guard when he was 18, lives out of the trunk of his car.

Willis, who says he was diagnosed as bipolar by the Army and then given a general discharge, says he "wanted to make the military my career." He is homeless.

"I have tried to keep working to keep a roof over my head," he writes, "but it isn't always possible.

"Veteran or no veteran, no one should be homeless," Willis writes. We are the richest nation on earth. Why wouldn't we spend a little to help the few who fall between the cracks?"

Of the 1,004 homeless individuals believed to be living in Anoka County, an estimated one-third are veterans, Krueger said. Nationally, there are an estimated half-million homeless veterans, Krueger said. Of every 10 homeless veterans under 45, one is a woman, he said.

Krueger offered some cautionary historical perspective. "It took a decade for Vietnam veterans to trickle into the homeless," he said. "We're just beginning to see what's happened to the Gulf War veterans and can only hope that the economy changes for veterans returning from Iraq.

"These people are heroes, a unique class of individuals," Krueger said. "They deserve better."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419