The Long Journey Home: The Challenges New Veterans Face After Their Service Is Complete

By @FrederickReese |
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    Cpl. Todd Love, rolls his wheelchair on stage while touring an amphitheater with fellow veteran Spc. Michael Schlitz, not pictured, before a benefit concert in the their honor Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Alpharetta, Ga. Cpl. Love lost both legs and his left arm in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    Cpl. Todd Love, rolls his wheelchair on stage while touring an amphitheater with fellow veteran Spc. Michael Schlitz, not pictured, before a benefit concert in the their honor Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Alpharetta, Ga. Cpl. Love lost both legs and his left arm in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    (MintPress) – Tim Kenney, as reported by the Chico Enterprise-Record, is an Afghanistan War veteran who runs a fishing guide business. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, and after months of sobriety and positive movement, he relapsed into alcoholism and psychotropic medication use. He recently admitted, “I’m not doing so well. Things are not good. My life pretty much sucks right now.

    “When you kill someone, you cross a line and you can’t cross back,” Kenney explains.

    Nick Wright, a Marine who served in Iraq, can sympathize with Kenney’s story. “Of course Kenney would suffer a setback returning to civilian life,” Wright said. “You were expected to act and behave a certain way while serving, and when you get back you expect people (civilians) to act the same way. It feels like you’ve been thrown into a crowd of rude, ungrateful people.” Wright was wounded in duty seven years ago and was diagnosed with PTSD two years after that.

    For many soldiers returning to civilian life after long wartime deployments, putting aside the pain, trauma and horror may be a difficult chore to achieve. Some find it difficult to adjust to an unstructured life after years of rigid regime and military order. Others can’t put aside the guilt and shock of the deaths and violence witnessed during service. Still, others find it difficult to relate military skills into civilian work, and others find it difficult to deal with the shift in scenery and attitude — even if it is a shift toward the familiar.

    There are 154,000 homeless veterans living on the streets in the United States. Additionally, 50,159 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returned home wounded, as reported by the Huffington Post, with more than 16,000 having severe, disabling wounds. Another 253,330 servicemen and servicewomen have suffered traumatic brain injury on the battlefield or in service, with 3,949 sustaining penetrating head wounds and 44,610 suffering severe or moderate brain injury. In the Army alone, 73,674 soldiers have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to combat experience. The Army also accounts for 30,480 soldiers who have returned home with combat-related traumatic brain injury.

    There have been 1,572 soldiers who have had major limb amputations. Another 1,410 received genital trauma. And yet another 142 lost at least one eye.

    In 2008, the financial care for caring for the wounded of Afghanistan and Iraq was calculated by Harvard economist Linda Bilmes to be between $600 billion and $900 billion. Nearly half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans claim disability benefits. With nearly 66,000 American military personnel still in Afghanistan, this tally will only rise.

    In the past, the United States took aggressive action to help serve the veteran community. Legislation included the GI Bill, Home Loan Guaranty, progressive pension plans, preferential government hiring and contracting and the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program. However, with many of these programs, the eligibility requirements are steep and are dependent on length of service, operations the soldier was involved in, the nature of the discharge, and severity of service-related injury. Only 40 percent of all veterans actually receive services from Veterans Affairs. For the remaining 60 percent, private organizations, such as the Returning Veterans Project in Portland, Ore., must pick up the slack.

    Many veterans never receive the care they need.

    It may be that this nation is less sympathetic to the needs of veterans. Compared to World War II — where 11 percent of the population was veterans — less than ½ of 1 percent of the population is a veteran today. However, the need for care has never been greater. There are 17,000 active-duty Army soldiers under arrest, in military prison or under investigation. In 2011, there were 1,313 rapes and sexual assault cases — double the 2006 rate. Twenty-three percent of female veterans report being sexually assaulted while in service, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, while 55 percent of all female veterans and 38 percent of all male veterans were sexually harassed. More than 8,000 active-duty Army soldiers have committed drug-related charges. Since 2001, 19,842 soldiers have been discharged who were found guilty of multiple felonies. For those who manage to stay crime-free, they still face a 15.2 percent unemployment rate, which is almost twice the national rate for the general populace, and a suicide rate higher than the general population.


    The problem at hand

    PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a situation or event that resulted in psychological trauma. This event overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope, causing a psychological collapse. The disorder manifests itself in nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, anger, hypervigilance and/or increased arousal, and typically impairs a significant area of functioning within the individual.

    Albert Julius Glass and Franklin D. Jones wrote in their book, “Psychiatry in the U.S. Army: Lessons for Community Psychiatry”: “PTSD symptoms can follow any serious psychological trauma, such as exposure to combat, accidents, torture, disasters, criminal assault and exposure to atrocities or to the sequelae of such extraordinary events. Prisoners of war exposed to harsh treatment are particularly prone to develop PTSD. In their acute presentation these symptoms, which include subsets of a large variety of affective, cognitive, perceptional, emotional and behavioral responses which are relatively normal responses to gross psychological trauma. If persistent, however, they develop a life of their own and may be maintained by inadvertent reinforcement. Early intervention and later avoidance of positive reinforcement (which may be subtle) for such symptoms is a critical preventive measure.”

    PTSD can manifest as a function of dissociation, or the mental reflex toward dealing with something unpleasant or difficult to cope with through detachment. Many soldiers who managed to accept or adjust to the noise and chaos of the war-zone cannot understand or accept the “stillness” of everyday life. This may cause a disassociation with the “civilian world” — a sense that the world the former soldier occupies now is fake and that he or she is separated from it. Others find the burden and reality of war-induced violence overwhelming or experience a traumatic event — an injury or the death of a comrade, for example — that “shell-shocks” the soldier. Others still find — after years of orders and uniformity — the freedoms of civilian life overbearing. Such “institutionalized” soldiers typically find the untrained, unrestricted actions of civilians offensive and foreign to their worldview.

    Regardless of the nature of the trauma, most experts agree that the best way to deal with it is to prepare the soldier before the soldier is deployed. An understanding of the violence that is waiting for the soldier or an understanding of the daily regime of a combat soldier will allow the soldier to prepare himself for the possible horrors that await him. While it is impossible to completely eliminate combat-related psychological trauma, being prepared for it will minimize its impact.

    This lack of preparedness is prevalent in the way this nation cares for its veterans — not only mentally, but in career readiness and generally in the way the military discharges its troops. Colleen Affeldt is the chief executive officer for Orbitas, a specialist in employee development and training with a focus on initiatives for hiring veterans. In conversation with MintPress News, Affeldt stated, “Unemployment statistics, though reportedly high, are under-reported. A veteran is considered employed if he/she obtains a job upon their return from service. Whether or not they retain that job or for what length of time is not considered. So if a veteran has a job for 60 days and loses it and is unemployed for a year, they are still counted in the ‘employed’ statistics.”

    She continues, ”Veterans are also often times underemployed, meaning they are working in a job well beneath their skill level and capability. Apparently the federal government has updated the TAP (Transition Assistance Program), though it will reportedly not roll out until somewhere toward the end of 2013. Which leaves the question: What about now? We also do a good job profiling military personnel upon entry for appropriate placement, but as they retire from service we are not repeating this in order to provide direction. Often times a soldier comes home and has no idea where to even start or how their job and skill set translates to the private sector.”

    A key problem facing veterans is not that there is a lack of services available to them, but that navigating the system to find what you need can be difficult and frustrating. According to a study conducted by the RAND Corporation, many veterans are familiar with some local and national groups that offer veteran support — such as the Wounded Warrior Project — and are familiar with the VA health system. However, very few could name state agencies and civilian organizations that provided direct mental health services. Forty-two percent of the veteran respondents to RAND’s survey attested they did not have a “good understanding of benefits available to them,” and 27 percent said that they did not know “how to get their questions answered.”

    According to the RAND study, veterans see the following as challenges toward assimilating into civilian life:

    1. Stress and mental health problems
    • PTSD, depression and thoughts of suicide
    • The need to bridge the gap with families and friends
    • Lack of time to readjust to life
    1. Social isolation
    • Loss of military closeness
    • Inability to relate to civilians due to challenges with or disinterest in sharing the experience of combat
    • College isolation
    1. Confusion about benefits and eligibility
    2. Unemployment and underemployment
    • Difficulty translating military skills and experiences to the civilian marketplace
    • Difficulty reintegrating into the workplace
    • Employers’ fears of reserve components’ deployment
    • Concerns of employers’ perception about veterans with mental health injuries
    1. Difficulties accessing post-9/11 GI Bill benefits
    2. Difficulties with disability evaluations
    3. Lack of support for families
    • Underfunded or unfunded programming
    • Not enough help figuring out how to reintegrate the veteran
    1. Mixed feelings about having women-centric programs at the VA.

    An example of this is Maria Canales, who served in the Army for four years and the Reserves for two. She was deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and offered finance support with Camp Anaconda. Upon returning home, Canales was hit with many challenges, including trouble navigating the VA, difficulty in receiving female-specific VA care, problems reintegrating with family and friends and unemployment. Canales sought free health care at the VA (as she is entitled to), only to find navigating the VA system difficult to do alone. When a VA employee told Canales that she needed to file several claims for different types of benefits, she gave up. When she returned for female-specific care, she was put on a waiting list that was months long due to a shortage of doctors in the VA system. Her family walked on eggshells around her — lacking the knowledge needed to relate to her — and her military experience did not automatically relate to civilian work experience. Alone, she grew angry and depressed.

    Many of Canales’ problems could have been resolved if she had the right people available to mentor her.

    Affeldt, in further conversation with MintPress, comments, “There are many companies with veteran hiring initiatives as well as countless companies doing job placement for veterans. All of this is good news.

    “However, where we are falling short is in the integration process. Companies very often have deliberate and well executed recruiting programs but nothing in the way of transition and assimilation. They go from a desert to a cubicle with no preparation to be successful in this new world. The attrition is staggering. That attrition is costing companies millions of dollars, which creates an understandable skittishness about hiring veterans. This does not have to be. Veterans typically possess the intangibles that cannot be ‘taught.’ With the right integration program, a company could end up with their most productive and highest value faction of employees in veterans.”

    Patrick Lefler is the founder of Spruance Group, a management consultancy based in New Jersey, and is a former Marine Corps officer. In conversation with MintPress, Lefler commented that for the translation of military experience to the real-world, “most new veterans returning to the civilian workforce focus on the wrong traits during the job search and interview process. It’s not the actual military experience that matters most to employers, but rather, the critical thinking skills behind the experience that need to be highlighted — a subtle point that both veterans and the companies who recruit them need to understand.”

    Dr. Harry Croft, a former Army doctor and an active psychiatrist who has evaluated more than 7,000 veterans with PTSD and is the author of “I Always Sit with My Back to The Wall,” offered advice to future veterans during conversation with MintPress:

    — Recognize what your skill sets are. Your military training proves you’re able to learn, work in groups, accomplish a mission, be a strong leader and be dedicated to what you do.

    — Understand the differences between the military community (your former job) and the civilian community (job you’re going into). The military recognizes you by your rank, time-in-grade and job description. The civilian community is different: People dress alike, socialize with co-workers and things are looser and not always by the book.

    — If you have PTSD, learn everything you can about it and better understand why you do what you do. It’s important to know what your symptoms are, what triggers them and how to cope. Without the knowledge, you’re likely to get in trouble and be misunderstood.

    — Get yourself a support system. It can be on the web, a mentor, coach or group of local veterans who are also returning to the workforce.

    The VA paid $437 million in retroactive benefits to the survivors of the 19,500 veterans who died waiting for benefits as of the fiscal year ending last September. This is a radical increase from just three years earlier, when $7.9 million was paid for less than 6,400 waiting veterans. Veterans typically have to wait up to 15 months before a benefits determination in Chicago, 16 months in New York and 18 months in Los Angeles. In defense of the growth in posthumous payments, the director of the agency’s pension and fiduciary system said, “It’s a good thing that the VA pays benefits to honor the service of veterans and the sacrifices of their family members despite the fact that a veteran has unfortunately died.”

    In response to this, the Senate has demanded that the Department of Veterans Affairs prepare a report addressing the backlog in processing veterans benefits and submit a plan to resolve the problem.

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