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Former homeless veteran now helps others who struggle with the same issues he did

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MADISON (WKOW)-- After years of conflict, the situations in the Middle East are starting to wind down as thousands of service men and women are sent back home. Veteran support specialists say an increasing number of vets returning home find themselves homeless and unemployed.

"They're coming back to not having a job and they're hitting homelessness much quicker than ever before," Veteran Affairs Homeless Program Coordinator Marybeth Urbin says. "We're seeing current vets and also vets from the Vietnam era. Both need a lot of help."

The problems veterans face are difficult for many to understand. Often times these vets are neglected by family members and friends who can't relate to the stresses and fears of military service. That's where workers like Matt Heldman come in.

"I was homeless for six years and unemployed for ten," Heldman explains. "Now I'm helping vets that have been homeless and I understand them. I get them."

Heldman has experienced these struggles firsthand. He served as an Air Force medic for four years. His unit was trained to provide medical aid to soldiers on the front lines. The training was brutal, as personnel simulated real life scenarios in order to prep Heldman and his unit for battle.

Once his service was complete Heldman returned home to his family, but just as he was starting to get used to civilian life, he was put on standby for Desert Storm.

"It was so nerve-wracking. I literally shook the whole week I was waiting to be sent out. At the last minute they decided they didn't need another unit so we stayed home," Heldman says.

For years, Heldman suppressed his emotions and fears until it blew up inside him, costing him his house, his family, his entire way of life.

"I have medication. I have tools that I've learned to help cope with all of that, but I still struggle with it. It's still an ongoing issue."

Several years later Heldman finally found the help he needed. He lived in transitional housing for 16 months through a program at the Madison Veteran Affairs Hospital. Now, he's paying it forward by helping homeless veterans who are struggling with many of the same issues he did.

"When I walk them into their apartment the first time and I say welcome home, I see the smile on their face, that's worth it. It's just worth it," Heldman says with a smile on his face.

Homeless advocates in Madison say it's difficult to put a number on the issue of homeless veterans, but they have identified at least 65 vets who are currently living on the streets. Workers are helping these vets find permanent living arrangements, but say there are many more still out there. Advocates say there's a large number of vets who go home to home staying with friends and family members. There's a large population of vets who are living on the streets whom advocates are still trying to connect with.

"The truth is that the veteran signed up to protect this country and we owe it to veterans to take care of them in any way that we can," Heldman says.

More than 100 mental health professionals gathered at the Veteran Affairs Hospital Monday afternoon to discuss strategies for tackling this issue of homelessness. Advocates in Madison have the goal of getting every vet into a permanent home by 2015. Coordinators say it's a lofty goal, but it reminds them how important their work really is.

"Mental health and homelessness are two issues that affect a lot of people, especially veterans. We are working to get them the help they need," Urbin says.


MADISON (WKOW) -- The Madison Veterans Affairs Hospital is hosting a mental health summit on Monday.More than 100 mental health professionals representing the Department of Veterans Affairs and community partner organizations are looking at how they can work together to address the mental health care needs of veterans and their families. .

"Mental health issues are among the most significant challenges faced by many of our veterans," Dr. Eileen Ahearn, acting chief of mental health at the Madison VA Hospital, said. 

Officials hope the daylong conference at William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital will enhance mental health care for veterans and their family members

"This summit creates an opportunity for those of us involved in providing quality, coordinated services to learn from each other," Ahearn said. "Each of us brings different insights, training and experiences to our mission to serve veterans and their families and we hope the collaborations between VA and the many community organizations that help our veterans will lead us to more effective and comprehensive mental health services."

There are more than 120,000 veterans in the Madison VA Hospital's primary service area.

For more information about the Madison VA Hospital, click here, or check them out on Facebook.

27 News' Gordon Severson shares the story of a local veteran who overcame homelessness and is now helping others who are facing the same struggles he did.

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