As the nearly nine-year war in Iraq draws to a close, Bay Area veterans who are returning home to rejoin their families and resume their civilian lives may face unexpected challenges.

Keith Armstrong, director of couples and family therapy at the Veterans Affairs Center in San Francisco, said that after an initial honeymoon phase, readjustment for returning veterans can be difficult.

“They have to get on with the issues at hand, enrolling in school, attempting to find work; there may be a fair amount of existential angst in terms of trying to determine, ‘What do I do now? What’s in store for me at this point?'” Armstrong said.

Armstrong assists combat veterans and their families in coping with challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder. He co-authored a bestseller five years ago titled ‘Courage After Fire’ to help returning veterans and their families.

He said that the San Francisco VA is working to engage young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, offering help in enrolling in school, finding work and connecting to mental health counseling.

Armstrong said the unemployment rate for veterans is higher than the national average for a variety of reasons. He said that between 15 and 20 percent of veterans returning from combat grapple with mental health issues including PTSD, depression and anxiety, as well as substance abuse problems.

For many, the troubles with the economy can exacerbate such issues, Armstrong said.
“Think of the mindset of serving your country and coming home and finding yourself unemployed,” he said. “You come back and you’re faced with not being able to find work, it can really affect the narrative you’re developing.”

Despite that, Armstrong said that military training translates well into the workforce, and that veterans can make excellent employees as they are imbued with values like duty and loyalty through their military training.

“For us as providers, this war is definitely not over. We have a long road ahead of us,” said Colleen Corliss, a spokeswoman for Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based non-profit veterans assistance group.

Swords to Plowshares works closely with the VA to provide veterans with mental health counseling, legal assistance and help finding work and housing.

Corliss said another hurdle that veterans face in finding work is that employers who see military experience on a resume may not understand what skills soldiers might have learned as part of their duties, and don’t necessarily realize that soldiers are qualified for the job at hand.

She said that soldiers returning from war are also at a disadvantage compared to peers that had attended college in terms of training and experience, further complicating their transition.

One program that Corliss said has been very successful for the organization is a partnership with Laney College in Oakland to place veterans in green jobs training such as solar installation.

The training programs Swords for Ploughshares offers are mainly focused on high-growth areas, Corliss said, which led to an emphasis on green jobs, an area that has been booming in the Bay Area in recent years.

Corliss said that of 40 veterans who had completed the program over the last several months, 39 of them are now working.

The VA is working directly with community colleges as well, and Armstrong said he has been working with City College of San Francisco to provide more convenient assistance to young vets.

“We are the first VA in the country to have a mental health clinic on a community college campus,” Armstrong said. He said that the approach has proven effective, as instead of waiting for young veterans to come to a major medical center, instead they can offer help where the veterans are attending school.

He said reaching out to young veterans is important, because some may not seek out assistance from the VA on their own.

“Part of that is being 20 and being male, part of it comes from the military culture which communicates sort of an edict of toughing it out, part of it might come from particular psychological problems. Some folks might be struggling with trauma symptoms and part of the symptoms might be avoiding anything that reminds them of their military service even though it might be helpful to them,” Armstrong said.

In addition to the medical center in San Francisco, there are a number of community-based out-clinics in cities from San Bruno to Eureka staffed with mental health professionals to offer convenient services to veterans throughout California.

Getting veterans into school is a priority, so the San Francisco VA also operates programs to help veterans enroll in community college, the University of California and California State University.

“It’s part of an initiative called troops to college, started in 2006 through Arnold Schwarzenegger,” said Rogelio Manaois, veterans services coordinator at San Francisco State University. “CSU seems to have done a lot in terms of traction and program development,” he said.

He said that in the fall semester the program enrolled 430 eligible veterans at SFSU, and have steadily received inquiries from soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan interested in attending when they come home.

The program helps prospective veteran CSU students waive deadlines, plan transfers from community college, and accept military training credits to help with transfer requirements. It also maintains veterans support services on campus.

They’re also ready to help if the students are called back to war. “We make sure that if any of our students get deployed, and it happens a lot, we hold their space at the school,” Manaois said.

Scott Morris, Bay City News

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