The Invisible Heroes: The Veterans


 No veteran should be homeless. No veteran who wants to work should be jobless. No veteran should feel hopeless.

Operation Stand Down Nashville, Inc (OSDN) is the primary nonprofit resource for veterans in Middle Tennessee providing life changing social services including transitional housing, or referrals, employment readiness training and placement assistance, and coordination of the activities of other agencies in the delivery of such services. We are the only VA approved and supported Veteran Service Center in Tennessee. Our clients are honorably discharged veterans with an emphasis on veterans who are homeless. Our ultimate goal is to give veterans in need the tools to rejoin their community as productive, responsible citizens.




Support the Veterans who fought for your freedom

Support the Veterans who fought for your freedom



 We are only as free as the most disadvantaged in our Nation. -J.C. Smith







invisible heroes

invisible heroes








Soldier Down

As we take time on Veteran’s Day to reflect and honor the soldiers that still are on the front lines, those who fought the wars of old and those who gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for our freedom, I cannot help but think of the hundreds of thousands of homeless veterans here in America. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me before shooting the original documentary on homelessness in 2006 that many of the men would have at one time served this country in uniform, but I am ashamed to say it hadn’t. Yet, within mere hours of our cinematic journey to document the stories of the homeless on film, we would find a truth that to this day ripples through every American flag that flies in this country…the faces and hearts of true patriotism.

Truthfully we found the majority of those American veterans suffered from addictions and most are tormented by the ghosts of whatever war they fought in. 

But after talking to many I could understand the need for escape from the nightmares that lurk in the shadows of their minds. The memories collide against man like the endless clash between sea and land, eroding their today’s’ with their tortured, salty tears of the past.                        

                                                                                        -penny carlton

America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom, or the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Forty-seven percent of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam Era. More than 67% served our country for at least three years and 33% were stationed in a war zone.[1]

Day after day, hour after hour we would stand and talk to veterans. Their eyes would mist as they talked of better times, family left behind and their faith in God. Inevitably, when the conversations would shift to their time in the military, we watched as pride lit up their eyes and shoulders squared. We walked back in time with them and they were no longer homeless veterans, but proud soldiers, every button sparkling in the sun…American Soldiers…America’s sons.

 Excerpt from the Novel: The Invisible America 

It was a blustery, cold Sunday morning when we met a middle age couple handing out sandwiches and hot coffee from the trunk of their car to the homeless in a deserted parking lot. After talking with them for a few minutes they offered to take us into a camp. We’d been warned to be careful of the camps. But just as we’d won the trust of these two Good Samaritans, they’d won ours and we knew we’d be safe. Hidden in thick brush beneath an interstate highway stands a small community made up primarily of veterans. We knew they were veterans before they told us. None of us missed “Old Glory” flying proudly in the wind in front of each makeshift home. Even before we were welcomed into their fold, our cameraman had his lens fixed on the flags, catching each ripple as they blew in the wind. 

A testament. This was American soil.

They were a tight-knit group. Protective of the land they called home. Protective of one another. I’m not sure we’d have been welcomed with our cameras if we’d not been personally introduced. But those who’d gone before us for months bringing food and scripture were trusted. We’d received their stamp of approval which opened the trail to our questions and cameras.

Walking down the path for a brief moment you almost believe you’re simply walking into a local campground. The smell of campfires tickled our noses, stirring memories of our own childhood camping trips. We heard the sound of metal meeting wood as one of those we were yet to meet was chopping firewood. Laughter rang out. Dogs barked. The only thing missing that day was the sound of children.

We followed the trail with multiple Old Glory’s up ahead welcoming us. Yet, when we reached our destination we found another of America’s shame. There is a third world in America. The smell of campfires that only moments ago had conjured up sweet memories of camping trips was in truth their only means of heat on the cold, damp morning. Their only means of cooking if they’d been fortunate enough to have been able to work day labor the week before. Obviously some had, for we saw hot dogs simmering in a dented pan at one of our stops and there was no doubt they would be shared. The ax swung so agilely to split the wood was done with purpose. Fall had taken hold with a chilling grip, winter was gaining ground and would soon blow the remaining leaves to the ground as it chased out fall. That wood meant heat. That wood meant survival.

Looking around we wondered where their laughter could possibly come from. As they huddled around a campfire we found the laughter came from sharing memories of their lives. It came from the little anecdotes that dot all of our lives. It came from playing Frisbee with their dogs.

It would seem normal if you could erase the evidence of their days from your vision.

We ended up talking to four or five of the men who lived in the camp. Some of had been there for years, some had only just arrived. All were over forty; all had at least a high school education and some had special training from the military. 

Each had served more than 3 years in the military, many had seen war. Each had families left behind. Most worked at day labor. All had a strong belief in God, family and country. Each hoped one day to overcome the curse that led them there and go home. They were unanimous in telling us they got through each day by the grace of God, the hope to go home and love for their country. These men served proudly. These men would serve again proudly and they weren’t ashamed to say so. They kept a strong code of military honor. They may not always agree with the choices this country makes, but they’re Americans and this is their country. Period.

Looking back now it seems we asked the most frivolous questions. We were always asking what they missed the most. They always had a ready answer so I assumed they were quite used to us well-intention strangers grasping to understand; still so comfortable in our three bedroom, two bath homes with credit cards to get us through the week that inevitably we’d ask about material things.

Our veteran laughed easily when asked what he missed the most. “That’s easy,” he said. “I miss my wife, my family, my bed.” He chuckled before continuing, “I miss Wal-Mart. Just going to Wal-Mart and buyin’ what I want. You know normal stuff.”

The wind shifted and eyes connected. “God’s here though.” He continued. “Without Him, none of us would make it out here. We read the bible and remember another time when He brought us through.” (And my thoughts went to another campfire, the sounds of gunshots and bombs echoing in the distance…another time.) Subdued in his own thoughts he looked away as he rubbed his hands together over the crackling fire.

The temperature was dropping quickly. The promise of a chilling rain gathered in the gray clouds threatening to spill at any time. The wind took on an icy breath. We hadn’t planned to be out in the elements that day.  We had simple met to shoot some B-roll, have lunch and discuss the coming week’s shoots. All that had changed when we had happened upon our good Samaritans’ in a deserted Sunday parking lot.

We’d been in the camp better than two hours. None of us were dressed for a day in the woods, especially a cold day in the woods. I glanced at the cameramen and saw their hands were raw from the cold. My co-producer and I had edged closer to the fire, but neither of us ventured to hold our hands over it to warm them. It seemed wrong somehow, as if we’d be stealing a bit of warmth from these men. We said our goodbyes, packed up the camera gear and headed back to the car. We were chilled to the bone and walked quickly towards the promise of warmth blasting from the heat vents of the car.

As we hurried towards the car, I knew we’d witnessed more patriotism in the last two hours than is seen on any given day in most neighborhoods across America. Addictions, some bad life choices and circumstances had broken these men, robbed them of the American dream they’d once fought to protect. All veterans are heroes, but on this cold fall day, standing before us we’d found the lost heroes. Even in the midst of unthinkable hardship they stood proudly beneath American flags. Pride in their country shone in their eyes. They held tight to their bibles beneath the Stars and Stripes with a dignity few of us will ever obtain.


I heard Old Glory wailing through the wind for her soldiers dying beneath her on American soil bought with the blood of their brothers.

(C) 2009 penny carlton





Veteran Specific Highlights:

33% of male homeless population are veterans
47% Vietnam Era
17% post Vietnam
15% pre Vietnam
67% served three or more years
33% were stationed in war zone
89% received Honorable Discharge

46% white males compared to 34% non-veterans
46% age 45 or older compared to 20% non-veterans

                                                 – National Coalition of Homeless Veterans

 America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom, or the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. 

Conservatively, one out of every three homeless men who is sleeping in a doorway, alley or box in our cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served this country.


American Pride

American Pride

Read more stories about our Invisible Heroes in The Invisible America


Thanks Freedom Angels


You know that soldier, he knows

That time waits on no one

They are trained and ready to seize each

Moment until victory is won


You know that soldier, he knows that

Peace is worth the fight

They are trained and ready to give

Freedom its right


Our freedom angels, soldiers carrying in

The flag for you and for me

Fighting the battle in a distant land

Fighting the fight for peace


You know that soldier, he knows his

Life is on the line

They are brave and ready to give you

That moment in time


You know that soldier, he knows

Pride in standing tall

They know their duty and they are ready

When freedoms fight calls


Our freedom angels, soldiers carrying in

The flag for you and for me

Fighting the battle in a distant land

Fighting the fight for peace


You know that soldier who now sleeps

In a card board box? He’s not alone

Many are out there under bridges and streets

Silently hungry and without a home


You know that soldier?

Ask yourself why?

He is now homeless

Right in front of your eyes


©Annie Russell Hofer


Ask yourself why?

Ask yourself why?



*If you have a story about an invisible hero, please email us at:


Please take a moment and visit the sponsors of The invisible America 

One Response to “The Invisible Heroes: The Veterans”

  1. Penny – I have been sitting here for the last 10 minutes after watching this video, trying to write something to tell you how incredible and amazing it is, but the words I type can’t even begin to touch what I really want to say. What you captured in those pictures is something that most people in the world just don’t want to see or acknowledge. Thank you for taking the time to do this. It is a real eye opener.

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