Post-9/11 vets fight new battles to transition back into civilian life

Sunday afternoon at Arlington West, Santa Monica Beach. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Sunday afternoon at Arlington West, Santa Monica Beach. Photo by Ted Soqui.

By Joe Piasecki

The rows of wooden crosses that line the sand north of Santa Monica Pier each Sunday are a rare public reminder that more than 6,800 military service members have died in the Middle East since fighting began in 2001.

Each white cross at Arlington West, assembled weekly for more than a decade by the Los Angeles chapter of Veterans for Peace, represents one casualty of war. Each red cross represents 10.

“If people can visualize the cost of war it can affect them,” said Michael Lindley, 69, an Arlington West organizer and Vietnam veteran.

When clinical psychiatrist Judith Broder walked among these crosses for the first time in 2004, she was overcome with sadness — both for those who had died and those who were coming home less than whole. Then she saw a play, “The Sandstorm,” that recounted stories of Marines who had served in Fallujah.

“What got to me was how they felt about themselves. Not fit for civilian life. Not fit to come home — ‘We’ll infect those we love with our stories if we ever talk about it,’” Broder said. “I knew that what they were suffering was curable.”

So she took action. Broder founded the Soldiers Project, a network of therapists who donate free and confidential one-on-one counseling sessions to post-9/11 veterans in need.

Broder started with eight volunteers in Los Angeles. Now she has hundreds in cities across the country, donating thousands of therapy hours each year. In the first 10 months of 2014, 525 veterans received roughly 3,500 hours of free treatment, according to the nonprofit.

In 2011, when volunteers logged about 7,400 hours, President Barack Obama awarded Broder a Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest honor for civilians.

“The organization fills a critical need,” state Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance), an Air Force reservist, said of the Soldiers Project. “A large percentage of referrals [more than half, Broder said] come through the Veterans Administration because they don’t have the capacity. With recent reforms the situation will hopefully get better, but in the meantime the Soldiers Project is critical.”

As many as 12,000 people are leaving the military each year to settle in Los Angeles County, according to a September report by the USC School of Social Work’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families.

The study surveyed 1,350 local veterans and found that most didn’t know how to get help with medical, employment or housing needs, said Army battalion chaplain Nathan Graeser, a community liaison for the center who also convenes the services-oriented Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative.

As many as two-thirds of those surveyed reported struggling to adjust to civilian life, half had untreated health issues, and a tenth had considered suicide.

“One of the more shocking things is that most new veterans have no plan, no preparation for coming home,” said Graeser, 32, a Marina del Rey resident. “Everyone thinks war is the hard part. Veterans often say they’d go back to war if called, but it’s coming home that’s the hard part — re-acclimating, meeting your spouse again … all those family systems you’re not part of anymore.”

Graeser is participating in a Nov. 22 workshop at Loyola Marymount University titled “Caring for the Families of Veterans,” designed to focus on the needs of spouses and children who also experience the turbulence of deployment and return.

“The biggest problem is there’s no boot camp for civilian life. You go from a ‘we’ to a ‘me,’ and that’s pretty rough,” said workshop organizer Mark Mitchell, a marriage and family therapist and LMU Extension instructor.

Nearly 80% of post-9/11 veterans in the USC survey left the military without tangible job prospects, more than 20% were living below the poverty line, and most of those still unemployed were not receiving assistance in finding a job.

Enter the Veterans First Program, an initiative by Jewish Vocational Services to help recent veterans stabilize their civilian lives and find employment. Much of that work is done out of the JVS Worksource Center in Marina del Rey.

“Many new veterans are combat vets, and now they’re coming into a new combat zone and they don’t know what’s up or down. We help guide them to a safe place called a career,” said program manager Anthony Rodriguez, formerly a Marine Corps captain.

In addition to job readiness training and social services referrals, said Rodriguez, the JVS program offers community — including a Java for Jane discussion group for female veterans that meets Monday mornings in Marina del Rey.

Feelings of displacement and isolation run rampant among veterans who come to the Soldiers Project, said Laurette Hayden, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Monica who currently treats four veterans referred through the project.

Relationship issues, sleep problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse are common issues, said Hayden, who felt compelled to help because of her great-grandfather’s struggles after returning from World
War I combat.

“My mother told me he never talked about his experiences, and yet every Veteran’s Day he’d close the door to his study and my grandmother would take the kids out because he’d spend the whole day behind that door crying,” she said. “I thought if he had something like the Soldiers Project, what a powerful resource that would have been.”


Veterans in Los Angeles County

325,000 veterans live in Los Angeles County

12,000 more settle here each year after leaving the military

4 out of 5 leave the military without a job, and nearly
1 in 4 of those who do find employment earn wages at
or below poverty level

2 out of 3 recent veterans report difficulties adjusting to civilian life

1 in 10 veterans have considered suicide

1 in 2 veterans report a significant physical or mental health issue for which they are not receiving care

Source: USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families survey, 2014

Casualties of War

6,838 military service members have died while fighting or working in support of war operations since 2001, according to the Pentagon

52,281 were wounded in action or otherwise hurt, according to the Pentagon

734 service members from California have died in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars — more than any other state, according to CNN

Financial Cost of War

$1.58 trillion in taxpayer funds have gone to support the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001

$22.25 billion of that came from Los Angeles taxpayers

$1.83 billion came from Santa Monica taxpayers

$162.3 million came from Marina del Rey taxpayers

Source: National Priorities Project