Unique Care Offered for Struggling Vets
July 31, 2013
Aaron Glantz / Center for Investigative Reporting & Mihir Zaveri / Associated Press
The Veterans Resource Center at SF City College was touted as a model -- the first VA health care offered on a college campus. The staff includes a social worker and a psychiatrist to help vets find jobs and make appointments for specialized care. But three years later, there is no plan for a national rollout. Nearly 1 million vets used the GI Bill last year, the VA's health care system has only served 6,000 on fewer than 30 campuses.
Rare City College VA Clinic Supports Student Vets
Aaron Glantz / Center for Investigative Reporting
SAN FRANCISCO (July 29, 2013) -- As a community college classmate brushed off the significance of civilian war casualties, Daniel Acree, a machine gunner in the Iraq War, felt a searing pain, his body filling with rage.
In Iraq, Acree had watched powerlessly as a 5-year-old boy died in a rocket-propelled grenade attack. That was all he could think of as the professor turned to him for perspective. With "all the different memories coming back, I just couldn't go on," said Acree, 29. "I just couldn't be there anymore."
With a glance at his professor, Acree walked out of class. But because he was at City College of San Francisco, he didn't have to go far to find help.
Within minutes, Acree was talking with a therapist at the on-campus clinic run by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. "He just listened, had me talk it out, calmed me down," Acree said. "I don't know what I would have done. I was in panic mode."
When it opened in 2010, the Veterans Resource Center at City College was touted as a model for the future -- the first health care offered by the VA on a college campus. The staff includes a social worker and a psychiatrist who can help veterans find jobs and make appointments for other types of care at the main VA.
But three years later, there is no plan for a widespread national rollout. Although nearly 1 million veterans used the GI Bill to go to college last year, the VA says its health care system so far has served 6,000 on fewer than three dozen campuses.
The initiative remains in the pilot stage, with a $2.8 million annual budget. Funds go only to schools where both the local VA and a college administrator express interest -- not necessarily to those with the greatest needs. At nearly all schools with the largest veteran populations, the VA is providing no health services.
Among 150 college campuses educating the largest numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the clinic at City College remains one of four nationwide, according to a survey by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Struggle to Adjust
The VA's own studies have found that many veterans struggle to adjust to academic life. The transition can be particularly hard for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have begun to wonder whether the agency is doing enough to back up its $10 billion annual commitment to veterans' education with programs to help them graduate. In May, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the VA "lacks a plan" for ensuring that veterans succeed on campus.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who requested the audit with Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., said the VA has "already had a long time" to craft a national support system for veterans who attend school with taxpayer support.
"We have had a decade of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that, we had returning veterans from the Gulf War and before that, Vietnam," Braley said.
The VA says it is still trying to figure out a way to track the 974 students who have visited the City College clinic to see if they are more likely to graduate than those without access to on-campus services.
The idea for creating the veterans center at City College started with the campus, not the VA. In an era of state and local budget cuts, campus officials, including the chancellor and football coach, raised private donations -- most in the form of labor and materials from local trade unions -- to build the clinic and a social lounge for veterans next door.
They went to the VA in San Francisco and asked whether the agency would consider opening a clinic.
"We wanted to make the transition from military to college a friendly one," said football coach George Rush, standing in front of the lounge, with its three couches, 10 computers, refrigerator and big-screen TV.
Veterans needed "a place that was their home, their place and their spot," Rush said, a place "where veterans could talk to veterans, could communicate at the same level, share the common experience that wasn't available at other clubs and services."
Magnet for Veterans
The Veterans Resource Center has made City College a destination for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans across the region.
"This is a special place to me, and that's hard to get," said Aundray Rogers, an Iraq War veteran and president of the City College of San Francisco Veterans Alliance. The campus now has 1,300 veterans -- twice as many as when Rogers started school in 2009 -- according to the school.
Every weekday, Rogers drives past six other community colleges on his way to San Francisco from Vallejo. City College may be fighting to keep its accreditation, but Rogers says it is the only place where he can get counseling for the flashbacks that still plague him occasionally during class.
On most afternoons, Rogers can be found in the lounge next door, laughing and backslapping with other veterans. It's a big change from when he first arrived at City College in 2009, depressed and isolated, scanning other students' backpacks in search of a military rucksack or insignia - someone, anyone, who had shared his wartime experience.
Getting over War
Acree says the services available at City College have helped him make a transformation. When he returned from Iraq in 2004, he slept in a crouching position and reacted defensively when people approached. Once, he punched his father in the face. A job working trade shows with the Teamsters union provided money but, he said, did nothing for his soul.
He thought regularly about re-enlisting so he could go back to Iraq, where life was more "normal." Seeking camaraderie, he re-upped in the reserves. Now, after two years in a supportive community at City College, he is planning to transfer to UC Berkeley.
Every college should have a place for veterans to go, he said, "because who knows what one of these veterans might do. They might not get the help they need in time."
KQED-FM producer Monica Lam contributed to this report.
The independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting is the country's largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit www.cironline.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pathway Home Gives Hope to Troubled Veterans
Mihir Zaveri / Associated Press
(July 30, 2013) -- Tucked away in the Napa Valley, a small mental health organization has found success working with struggling U.S. service members, reducing suicides with unconventional treatment methods that include backrubs and cookouts.
Soldiers in the specialized counseling program receive traditional therapy to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems linked to combat stress. But at the Pathway Home, services expand to social gatherings, photography classes and even swimming with dolphins.
About 380 veterans have gone through the program in five years, and only one has committed suicide. The results have drawn the attention of an Army detachment that has stationed itself at the center for training through September.
Military officials say service members respond to the treatment because it acknowledges their unique experiences and helps them adapt to often overlooked aspects of civilian life.
"Here they're not patients, they're residents," said Col. David Rabb who commands the Army's 113th Medical Detachment, Combat Stress Control. The program "is respecting them for who they are, they're warriors," he said.
At Pathway's four-month program, veterans learn to manage their finances and receive career, legal and educational advice, said Fred Gusman, the organization's executive director.
"When you go to a hospital, they're not going to help you with your legal problems," said Gusman, who helped start the program in 2008. "They might have marital counseling. They might not have marital counseling. They're not about getting you in school, because they're a medical center. Pathway is about the whole person."
On a recent afternoon, smoke wafted from the courtyard as Pathway residents mingled with fatigue-clad soldiers from the medical detachment at a barbecue.
Rabb said the assignment provides his unit an opportunity to "learn from the best" and "also engage combat veterans."
"Where else can you do that in the civilian sector?" he asked.
The cookouts are an integral part of the Pathway program, allowing veterans to build social skills, Gusman said. Attendees often include Vietnam or World War II veterans and schoolchildren.
"It's that kind of process that makes these men who come here feel they are part of society again, and that they're not a secret, that they're not strange and civilians aren't strange," Gusman said.
Before the gathering, Darint Thong, one of 20 residents at Pathway, rested face down while a masseuse pressed her hands into his broad back.
Thong said the rubdowns available as part of the program help relieve stress. He served two tours of duty in Iraq as a sharpshooter in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. He would only describe what he saw there as "the ugliness of the world."
Thong has been back in the U.S. for seven years but has struggled to adapt to civilian life. He developed a drinking problem, struggled with anger and was arrested for driving under the influence. He sought treatment through the Veterans Affairs hospital, but he relapsed and eventually contemplated suicide.
The Modesto resident has been among the gnarled oaks and shady lawns at Pathway since June.
"I feel better," he said. "Everybody here is going through somewhat of the same thing that I went through."
When fully funded at about $1.5 million a year, Pathway can take 40 residents, who are selected on a first come, first served basis, to live on an estate of cream-colored buildings with ceramic tile roofs.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that an average of 22 veterans kill themselves every day in a report based on data through 2010 that was released in February. About 350 active members of the U.S. armed forces killed themselves in 2012, according to military officials.
Rabb said his unit has come to Pathway to learn about its methods and also work with residents. His unit deploys to war zones to provide support to soldiers dealing with combat stress, which results in anger, high blood pressure, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
"When we go back to war, you're as good as your training," Rabb said. "This is training." He said the visit was also a way to show the Army hasn't forgotten about its soldiers.
The organization leases its buildings and grounds from the Veterans Home of California-Yountville, a state facility, for $1 a year.
J.P. Tremblay, a deputy secretary at the California Department of Veterans Affairs, said the state provides Pathway with the space in part because it allows residents to live with each other and with the counselors and staff as opposed to more common outpatient treatment.
"We saw it was a unique program that provided an opportunity for services that needed to be provided for vets," he said. He added, "It is almost like a college campus."
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