Never done fighting: Veteran’s struggle with PTSD, homelessness, and how writing saved him

He’s a Navy veteran who was once homeless before turning his life around attending the New School even while navigating the NYC shelter system and encountering a valued mentor. Today, he’s a published writer and an advocate for his fellow veterans.

| 06 Nov 2023 | 12:02

He’s a former Navy veteran who once ended up homeless on the streets of New York. When writer Alex Miller laughs today, it starts as a low chuckle, one he tries to suppress, before erupting into a bellowing belly-laugh that rivals the likes of even the most dastardly evildoers from the comics he faithfully follows. But unlike those villains, Miller’s laugh belies both an infectious enthusiasm for life and a deep sense of melancholy.

As a navy veteran who was homeless for three years, Miller’s laughter is hard-won. At nine years old, his best friend was shot and killed in the Chicago projects. At 18, he joined the U.S. Navy, lured by the promise of economic opportunity and swept up by the patriotic fervor that followed 9/11. Just five years later, after an honorable discharge, Miller found himself homeless on the frigid streets of New York. He was unable to receive medication for his post-traumatic stress disorder due to his lack of a permanent address or find work at Google, Apple, or any of the other tech firms that the Navy recruiters had assured him would be eager to hire a veteran with his expertise in military technology.

Miller, 37, now spends his days writing in his Upper East Side apartment. Now an accomplished journalist and essayist, his articles have been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wired, among other publications, and he is a fellow with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP), a nonprofit organization that funds and co-publishes independent reporters’ work on the economically disadvantaged.

In a recent essay, featured in the new book “Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World’s Richest Country,” Miller discusses his experiences as a homeless veteran and how the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs failed him and his peers. “They are not great at mental healthcare,” Miller said during an interview in downtown Manhattan at New York University. “In fact, you know, it wasn’t until really recently that they started acknowledging that PTSD was a thing.”

Approximately seven percent of veterans are diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their life according to a study by the National Center for PTSD. While Miller is just one of many impacted veterans, his experiences are emblematic of systemic issues.

After spending years on the streets, Miller, like many homeless veterans, found a placement in single-room occupancy (SRO) housing in the Bronx. “I was always fighting,” said Miller. “Everybody was just out to get everybody else.” Surrounded by the violence, crime, and drug usage that characterized his childhood in the projects, Miller’s time in SRO housing reignited past traumas. “It felt like I flew out of the hood only to land back in the hood.”

In those months, the symptoms of Miller’s depression and PTSD flared to levels he hadn’t experienced since he was a child in Chicago. He explained that he felt numb as he moved through the world, like a spectator in his own body. “I stopped doing everything,” said Miller. “I stopped going out, I stopped seeing people. I stopped caring.”

During this time, Miller was finally granted access to the college stipend promised in Chapter 33 of the Post 9/11 GI Bill after nearly weekly visits to the Bronx VA. These funds covered classes at The New School, where Miller enrolled in a variety of writing courses. In one course he met Susan Shapiro, an award-winning writer and professor who teaches at The New School, NYU, and Columbia University. Shapiro mentored Miller during his time at The New School, and encouraged him to write about his experiences of homelessness and trauma.

In subsequent years, Miller would have a personal essay published in The New York Times and receive his degree in Public Engagement. He eventually moved to Brooklyn with a classmate from school, and began his healing process.

However, many veterans succumb to their mental illness. According to a 2022 study performed by the VA, the rate of suicide is 57.3 percent higher among veterans living in the United States than non-veterans, and 6,146 veterans died by suicide in 2020 alone. In his struggle with mental illness, Miller said that he realized the need for outside support. “It’s about understanding that you don’t do anything on your own,” Miller said. “You need others to be successful.”

For Miller, those others are his writing group, therapist, and rescue cat, Christina. With their support, he was able to confront his lifelong traumas and transform his pain into prose. Miller now works with the EHRP to author articles about PTSD, homelessness, and his experiences with the VA.

One of his long-time collaborators, Alissa Quart, is the editor of Going for Broke and the executive director of the EHRP. Quart said that she chose to feature Miller in the forward of the book because “He’s honest, and also funny and strange,” she said. “He is an epitome of what we’re trying to get at at EHRP.”

Though Miller’s battle with his mental health persists nearly 20 years after his time in the Navy, he is more optimistic than ever. As he spoke at the head of a classroom in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, Miller, wearing a sleek black button down and cargo pants, his characteristic white rubber 9/11 memorial bracelet on his wrist, bounced in his black office chair and gestured emphatically, as though he were performing a great Shakespearean monologue, but one full of veiled references to the video games, films, and superheroes he now writes about, from Red Dead Redemption to the House of M. “I laugh a lot,” Miller said, a grin on his face. “This is very important. You’ve gotta laugh.”

Asher Fields is studying for a masters in digital storytelling at the NYU School of Journalism