Guild Mortgage Inlanta Grand Rapids recently had the pleasure of helping a local veteran on his quest for homeownership through the VA Mortgage program. Bryan has elected to share his story to raise awareness of the challenges vets face in financing homes and re-entering civilian life. If you know someone his story can help, please share this article.
The Plight of Veterans
- Homeless Vets: According to the National Coalition for Homeless Vets, the national average of veterans homeless on a given night is 39,471. Meanwhile, another 1.4 million vets are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions.
- Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: According to Wounded Warrior, there are currently 433,000 veterans who suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury, and 13.8% of veterans who will be diagnosed with PTSD.
- Suicide: According to an updated 2016 Study by Veteran Affairs, an estimated average of 20 veterans commit suicide per day in America – representing 18% of all suicides. A growing body of research suggests that stable housing may help reduce stress, which is an important aspect of suicide prevention.
- Substance Abuse: While there is no definitive national statistic currently available, various studies suggest that substance abuse affects anywhere from 15% to 39% of the veteran population who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that substance abuse is on the rise.
- Where to get help: Veterans Crisis Line offers text, chat and phone support plus features an online database of where to get direct assistance. Visit https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/
Far From Home
For Bryan Heath, a home of his own would be his “safe place.” But finding that sense of peace and belonging was a long hike through dangerous terrain. The journey would span Afghanistan and the battlefields of Iraq, but little did Bryan know his gravest danger wasn’t on foreign soil. The perils facing veterans on home turf in the USA are multiple, and in some cases, can be just as deadly as engagement. Twenty veterans will take their lives today, according to Veterans Affairs research, and at higher risk of suicide are the thousands that suffer PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. A staggering 39,471 veterans across the country will be homeless tonight. (See sidebar.)
An even larger number of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans will struggle with alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse to tame the ravaging horrors of war.
When Bryan joined the Marine Corps right out of high school in 2002, he had no idea he’d face these perils when he returned to US soil.
After boot camp, the young Grand Rapids man was sent to Afghanistan for his first tour of duty, where he served as a “Motor T” – marine-speak for transport driver.
Pretty soon, the US was fully engaged in Iraq, where Bryan would spend two more tours that would leave him, and thousands like him, struggling with PTSD when he returned to civilian life.
“I was anxiety-stricken. I’d shut down. I’d have cold sweats at night, flashbacks…” Bryan recalled.
Kent County has the fourth largest veteran population in Michigan, estimated at 36,000. According to a report by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of between 11-20% of veterans who fought in the Iraq war suffer PTSD. Bryan would become one of those statistics.
But before he knew of the struggle he’d face on his return and the haunting legacy of Iraq, he would be blindsided by a loss closer to home. Four days after his discharge, his mother died. Gone were his dreams of spending time with her, supporting her in her illness, when he got out. Those plans had sustained him through the worst times in Iraq. He’d been counting the days to see his mom again.
“I was devastated. Why was this happening to me? My life became a whirlwind where I spent the next three years drowning in alcohol and living for the moment. If I wasn’t wasted, I didn’t feel comfortable,” Bryan recalls.
Re-Entry to Civilian Life: From Jobless and Homeless to Moving Forward
Bryan’s experience seeking relief from the overwhelming anxiety and the night terrors of PTSD in the bottom of a bottle is not uncommon among vets. According to the National Veterans Foundation, one study estimated that 39% of Afghanistan and Iraq vets showed signs of substance abuse. Another study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that 12-15% of 88,235 combat veterans deployed to Iraq reported abusing alcohol. A NIDA study estimated that 25% of vets aged between 18 and 25 exhibited substance abuse or mental health disorders, more than double the incidence of older veterans.
“If I’d known then what I know now, I wish I’d have taken steps to get involved with the VA (Veterans Association) right then,” Bryan said.
His path to sobriety and the development of coping skills for civilian life were both thanks to the help he received when he eventually reached out to the VA and joined support groups. That, and the enduring love of a good, strong woman, helped put him on a path toward stable employment and home ownership. But the road was fraught with the snowballing consequences of his early struggles when discharged.
“In 2009, it was not a good economy. I was living paycheck to paycheck through a series of temp jobs,” Bryan said. “Survival was the focus, and my credit rating suffered.”
Like many vets, he and his family were homeless, staying with friends and family for a few months. After that, it was a series of apartments and eventually a mobile home.
At the time, homeownership seemed like an impossible dream. Meanwhile, four marines he’d served with had taken their own lives. That scared him more than anything. So too did a year-long separation from the woman that had become his wife, Danielle. When they reunited, Bryan knew he had to get serious about creating a stable life for himself and his family.
“That pushed me to reach out to ‘the wizards’ at the VA. They truly do help. It’s all in how you deal with it,” he said
For Bryan, ‘dealing with it’ meant doing some serious self-study in a range of group therapy settings, from AA to VA.
“What I came to understand is that I wasn’t ‘owed’ anything. But I did have benefits, and I had to use them and put forth the effort. You’ve got to work at it,” Bryan said. “I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and develop new coping strategies.”
Bryan caught a lucky break when he was offered an apprenticeship as a machinist at a local company committed to helping vets in 2011. Stable employment was the first piece of the puzzle that would later help him access a VA loan through the Jonathan Arnold team at Inlanta.
After a rocky interlude early in his apprenticeship, Bryan returned to sobriety and reconciled with Danielle.
“We were going to work this out. We knew we loved each other. We pinched every penny that we could. We didn’t want to live paycheck to paycheck. We wanted a place to call home.”
The Path to Home Ownership
The next step was to sit down with Jonathan Arnold, Inlanta VA loan expert and branch manager, to map out a strategy for restoring his credit in order to qualify for a VA mortgage.
“I honestly thought he’d laugh at me. I felt bashful,” Bryan admits. But Danielle was adamant. They were going to do whatever it took to qualify.
In Bryan’s case, that meant paying down debt to strategically improve his credit score, which had been battered during his struggle with PTSD and substance abuse combined with an unstable income. Danielle took the reigns and put him on “an allowance.”
During the credit clean up process, the Heath family caught another lucky break.
The score minimums for Inlanta’s government-backed loans, including the VA, were dropped from 620 to 581 in qualifying circumstances. The Heaths met those circumstances.
“From day one, Jonathan and his team said they could get me there. I was very much amazed. I thought it was going to be much harder than it was,” Bryan said. “To me, it was a breeze. Everybody made sure we knew how to get something in when it was needed. They were top of the line, amazing,” Bryan said.
Unlike many of his veteran friends who found qualifying for a VA home loan nearly impossible, he said his experience was “very smooth.” He credits this comparative ease to the pre-application guidance he was given.
“Jonathan gave me a list outlining exactly what we had to do,” Bryan said.
Together with an all-star effort from realtor Josh Livingston from JH Realty Partners, Bryan’s “home” team stuck with him through the first half of 2017 all the way to a June closing.
Every day, Bryan and Danielle would drive past their dream home on their way to work, filled with anticipation. They were tired of rentals, trailer parks, and relying on the good graces of family members. Their dream was within tantalizing reach. They were packed up and ready to go two days before the deal closed.
On closing day, as soon as they got the keys, Bryan, Danielle, and their daughter, Destiny, sprawled out on the bare living room, soaking in the joy of accomplishment and amazed that it had really happened. Django, the family’s American bulldog, tore around the huge, fenced backyard for an hour, reveling in his off-leash freedom.
For Bryan, home ownership has brought another kind of freedom – freedom from stress, and a feeling of safety.
“It’s alleviated a lot of my stress and tension. If you have PTSD or traumatic brain injury, homeownership is only going to help,” he said. “I’m more at home than I’ve ever been in my life.”
In their short time in their new home, the Heaths have already hosted a family boxing party, and are looking forward to hosting their first Thanksgiving gathering, something they’ve never been able to do. Bryan doesn’t mind tending to his “honey-do” list. Like freedom, it’s been hard-won.
“Having a place to go home to that’s yours…it’s the key to everything,” Bryan said. “It’s your safe space.”
For others who are struggling as he did, Bryan wants them to know it’s important to reach out and receive support through the VA and the veterans’ community. It might feel like a long journey, but there’s light in the end. “There’s hope out there.”
How to get help:
Bryan has learned first hand that one of the most useful strategies for re-integration with civilian life and dealing with PTSD is to join veteran support groups and “talk it out.”
If you’re a vet, consider reaching out to the local Veterans Administration at: https://www.va.gov/directory/guide/facility.asp?ID=429
For additional support or to Donate to assist veterans, visit: http://www.westmichiganveterans.com/
For veteran fellowship and outdoor recreation opportunities, Bryan is grateful to the Veterans and Sportsmen United, http://www.veteransandsportsmen.org/ 269.214.0835
For information on AA, use the location finder available at: http://www.aa.org/
For help applying for a VA mortgage or seeing if you would qualify, Contact the Jonathan Arnold team at Guild Mortgage Inlanta Grand Rapids.
For help finding a new home, Bryan highly recommends Joshua Livingston
JH Realty Partners: email@example.com 616.550.2251