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Veteran Reintegration Misunderstood, Difficult

Though Veterans Day ceremonies often include some acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, according to some veterans, few people really understand the challenges service men and women face when they leave the military.

Paul Aranda Jr., an Army veteran himself, spoke to EGP about the challenges that many veterans face. He works for TELACU, a community development corporation in Commerce, and interacts with veterans on a daily basis at the TELACU Education Foundation’s Veterans Upward Bound program, which helps veterans transition into college after being discharged.

Aranda said while some people join the military because of culture, or a desire to serve, for many others it’s the economic and educational benefits they believe they’ll receive that factor most into their decisions to enlist.

Rick Reyes is a past client of the Upward Bound program and one of several veterans honored at the Bell Gardens Hometown Hero ceremony held last week. He told EGP that people in his community often enlist as a way out of their economic situation, but from what he has seen, many veterans find themselves in the same situation they had hoped to escape when they return home.

Reyes said some of the friends he served with in the Marines, who came from different backgrounds and a higher socio and economic status, could “actually go back home and their parents can offer them opportunities” when their tour of duty was over. “I didn’t have the luxury of doing that: After I was done with my service, I was on my own.”

Dealing with being unemployed is one of the challenges Aranda says most veterans face when they are discharged. They have to find a way to make up for their loss of income, he said, adding that they often wind up in a job they did not expect.

“If a veteran came out and said, ‘I want to work,’ he wouldn’t have that hard of a time finding a position,” but getting the type of job he really wants, “that’s hard for everyone,” Aranda said.

When Reyes was discharged in 2008 after serving in Iraq, he had to figure out how to support his daughter with a job that paid less than being a Marine.

“Too often our skills don’t necessarily translate [in the civilian world]. So it’s difficult to secure good employment and we often have to settle for positions that aren’t paying well or that don’t offer benefits,” Reyes said. “It’s almost like all that experience and knowledge and time you spent in the military is not being validated.”

Aranda says some employers assume veterans have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and fear hiring them. But even if a veteran does suffer from PTSD, that doesn’t mean he can’t function like anyone else, according to Aranda.

“Everyone does have some form of post traumatic stress without [having] the disorder. Just the idea of shifting from one culture to the other, it creates some general stress,” he explained.

One of those stressors is the lack of a sense of security, which changes when a veteran returns home.

“For the most part, there’s a feeling of security. You have a place to stay, the food is there, the medical stuff is all taken care of, it’s all set up… All of a sudden you get out and nothing’s guaranteed,” he told EGP.

Separating from people they were close to and from their daily routines also causes a feeling of displacement, Aranda added.

Reyes says he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because he had trouble being in a room full of strangers, but noted that kind of stress eventually goes away. It’s the sudden loss of prestige, rather, that can affect a veteran’s mental state, he said.

According to Aranda, many veterans come out of the military used to making a certain amount of money, and find it hard to find jobs that pay as much. He advises returning service men and women to take full advantage of their GI Bill benefits and go back to school, which he said will give them a better shot at having a career.

WWII veteran Bill Sanchez echoed that sentiment. He told EGP his advice to young veterans is to go to college, which was what he did after returning home after being held as a prisoner of war.

“I never had to struggle because I took advantage of my VA Bill of Rights and got my college degree,” Sanchez said.

But, Reyes told EGP, veterans need to know that the transition period takes twice as long as they think it will, and should be factored in when figuring out how long it will take to complete college.

“When you serve and you return, you see your friends moved on and secured their careers, so you’re in that position where you have to constantly play a game of catch up,” Reyes said. “When you combine your time in transition and your time securing a career, added to the time in service,” it can be “a huge problem” for many vets, he said.

Going back to school has its challenges, said Reyes, who could not believe that the only college credit he received at ELAC for his military service was one P.E. unit.

“When I have to go back to school and I’m sitting in a classroom in my mid to late 20s with these young high school grads, there’s a problem there,” he said. “I served combat first hand and to come back and almost start back at step one from when I graduated high school is a bit unfair.”

Francisco Toribio was recently discharged from the Army and uses TELACU’s Upward Bound services. He told EGP that he decided to go to college in order to support his family.

He acknowledged that interacting with people at school could be difficult because of their military training and culture; it was even difficult with his family, he said.

“When I got back I was cursing a lot, so people were giving me eyeballs. But in the military culture that’s normal,” Toribio said. “Your way of talking, your way of culture is stronger and they haven’t seen you for a while, so they don’t understand the change.”

Toribio told EGP that the way communities embrace or treat veterans also has an impact on their reintegration into society.

“When I used military ID for a discount I overheard a woman say ‘he went overseas to kill babies’…I brushed it off, but when I got home I thought, ‘is that what everyone thinks of us.’”

Reyes understands that the public’s view of the war may affect how they treat returning veterans, but says there are ways to distinguish the war from the warrior.

“You can support the troops without necessarily supporting the war,” Reyes told EGP. “No matter how you feel about the war, there’s always ways of supporting the troops.”

Aranda told EGP that civilians just might not know how to interact with veterans.

“There’s no need to ever discuss combat with a veteran,” he said. “If they want to discuss it, they’ll discuss it on their own.

“You can ask them basic stuff like where did you serve, what was your MOS, but for the most part, there’s never a need to dig further. Even something simple, like ‘did you deploy’ can be a bad question.”

Reyes thinks civilians should at least be familiar with basic terminology and able to distinguish the different branches of the military.

“You definitely have to learn the lingo, know what the different uniforms are, those are the sort of things civilians can pay attention to, so that if you do engage they are not offending the individual that they’re talking to,” he explained.

Reyes told EGP that the extra help and resources veterans need to reintegrate into society has led the public to create a narrative that veterans are victims.

“Veterans are often looked at as charity cases because we need special services and resources, and although that might be true, it isn’t anything that we’re failing on our end,” Reyes said.

Aranda says veterans can turn that narrative around and be the ones that help others by getting involved in community service projects.

“Get involved, there’s a lot community service organization out there that want to take veterans and put them into community service roles, to let them get that sense of purpose again,” he told EGP.

Reyes agrees. “Veterans have to also take responsibility and get reengaged into society. We joined the military because we have this sense of service and once you leave the military, you kind of lose that. So remind yourself why you joined in the first place,” he said.

For more information about TELACU’s Veterans Upwards Bound Program, visit www.telacu.com.