Opinion: Help California’s veterans succeed after they return from combat

Picture, for a minute, that you’re a 20-year-old soldier who has just completed an 11-month tour in Afghanistan. You experienced heavy combat, were constantly alert to danger, and witnessed unspeakable violence.

Your return home, ironically, is also fraught with fear and anxiety. You try to adjust to “normal life,” but everything seems different – is different — now that you have flashbacks and the tell-tale signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This scenario is reality for many combat veterans, and the number of veterans struggling to get their lives back will dramatically increase in the months to come. As military operations end in Iraq and Afghanistan, the California Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) estimates that 30,000 veterans will return to the state each year.

These combat veterans will also return to unprecedented education opportunities. Since August 2009, an expanded G.I. Bill has allowed military veterans to recoup the full cost of any public college in their state and to receive a housing allowance and a $1,000 annual stipend for books. According to the DVA, 60,000 veterans are enrolled in colleges because of the new G.I. Bill — double the number in 2008.

But what good is a free education if you cannot sit through a class or walk on a campus because of crippling flashbacks, panic attacks or other mental trauma? How can you complete assignments or study for tests when your personal life has been destabilized by the effects of war?

If we want to help veterans succeed – in education and in life – then we must first ensure that we effectively treat and take into account their mental and emotional traumas. Our public colleges, especially community colleges, are not equipped to handle these hidden wounds, especially after yearly budget cuts. That’s why The Soldiers Project has created and is now expanding its Adopt A College program.

Project volunteers work closely with a college’s administration and faculty to help veterans succeed. This includes creating “vet-friendly” campuses where volunteer mental health workers educate staff and faculty on the psychological issues that face returning troops and provide referrals for The Soldiers Project’s confidential, pro bono psychological services to veterans and their families.

Adopt A College currently operates at seven Los Angeles-area community colleges. With the help of a $125,000 Leadership Award from the James Irvine Foundation, The Soldiers Project plans to expand the program to four more — three L.A. city colleges and Sacramento’s Sierra College.

But that’s just a drop in the bucket for what’s needed, considering the state of our economy and government finances.  The current proposed state budget would cut $400 million from our community colleges, and state and federal deficits threaten to reduce already scarce mental health services for veterans. This is no way to welcome home veterans who have fought our wars and need help recovering from them.

What’s needed is a battle plan involving multiple fronts. State and federal budgets must take into account the mental health needs of returning soldiers, in school or out. This includes funding nonprofits whose work complements the services offered by the VA, presenting options to the many veterans who are reluctant to access DVA services.

Community colleges and those who dictate their funding should take a more strategic approach to helping these unique students. And California residents who benefit from the sacrifices of our soldiers can become more involved, demanding that we don’t shortchange troops and the programs that support them — and volunteering with organizations that help veterans readjust to society.

War is not over when it fades from news coverage or when troops return home. In many homes and in many soldiers’ minds, it rages on. The least we can do is fight for them – for their mental well-being, their education, and for the opportunity to not just return home but to normalcy and a better life.    

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