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At least one in ten have been homeless in the past year.
More than a third who work full time earn an income below the national poverty line.
At least one in ten have considered attempting suicide.
These stark truths describe residents of Orange County who have served their country in the military, according to a new study released Thursday. And those who fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars face much higher rates of homelessness, mental health issues and financial difficulties compared to their pre-9/11 counterparts, the study shows.
The study by the University of Southern California School of Social Work surveyed more than 1,200 veterans living in Orange County about their experiences transitioning to civilian life, and it is the first study of its kind on the county’s veteran population.
Exiting the military sparks a fundamental question for many veterans about their self-worth and identity in civilian society, said Anthony Hassan, a 25-year military veteran and the director of the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families.
Yet the military is not adequately preparing service men and women for this major life change. The majority of veterans reported feeling unprepared during that transition, the study showed, with more than 70 percent of service members leaving the military without a job, and at least a third without permanent housing identified.
Mental health issues were also identified as the primary challenge facing veterans, linked with high rates of homelessness and suicide among post-9/11 veterans, the study found.
The study was funded by the Orange County Community Foundation, which approached USC after piloting its own program in 2012 aimed at creating a pathway for veterans transitioning out of the military, said Shelley Hoss, the foundation’s president.
Hoss noted that Los Angeles and San Diego counties, which rank first and second in the nation for the size of their veteran population, have their own military bases and Department of Veterans’ Affairs centers. Orange County, which follows closely at third, has neither.
“We have no active military installation here – there literally is no home base for veterans in Orange County,” Hoss said. “So it’s very important for our nonprofit sector and private philanthropy to fill in these gaps for young, post-9/11 veterans who are so needing a bridge back to civilian life.”
A common complaint among veterans was difficulty finding services, whether through the VA or the county’s patchwork of government and nonprofit organizations.
The county already has at least 85 veterans’ service groups, which for the past year have met as part of a collaborative to identify resources and coordinate services, said Chase Wickersham, a Vietnam War veteran who sits on the OC Veterans Advisory Council that advises the county Board of Supervisors.
Wickersham said the report, with its concrete local data, will enable many of these groups to pursue grants and prioritize their outreach efforts.
“It’s a step toward identifying how to be more efficient in supporting veterans,” Wickersham said.
The report also notes that existing veterans’ services groups tend to focus on just one or two issues, typically serving acute and chronic conditions, such as homelessness, immediate or severe health issues.
While these services are important, Hassan says this strategy neglects many veterans who need basic support that could prevent greater problems down the road.
“It’s not just about the chronically ill, it’s about the vet who is feeling depressed, who is isolated, who is having relationship problems, who can’t find his or her identity,” Hassan said. “Good mental health makes you employable, it helps your relationships, it provides the income you need for housing.”
He added: “It’s a holistic issue and it can’t be solved by one agency alone and one strategy alone.”
Here are some of the report’s major findings:
Nearly all the veterans who participated in focus groups said they felt mentally sound upon leaving the military, but about a month or so after discharge, realized there were issues they had ignored or “pushed back into their mind.”
Among post-9/11 veterans, 46 percent screened positive for depression and 44 percent for post-traumatic stress disorder, nearly twice the rates of veterans who served prior to 9/11.
Nearly one in five post-9/11 veterans have considered attempting suicide, with a slightly smaller number, 17 percent, reportedly making a suicide plan.
A whopping 18 percent of post-9/11 veterans reported being homeless in the past year, compared to 10 percent among those who served prior to 9/11.
Additionally, 14 percent of pre-9/11 vets and 19 percent of their post-9/11 counterparts, reported a lack of consistent housing during the past two months, placing them at risk for future homelessness.
The report’s authors say many services aimed at homeless vets don’t do enough to prevent homelessness. For example, in order to qualify for housing support, vets must already be, or imminently facing, homelessness.
Hassan said housing support should reach out to veterans far earlier, at the earliest signs of their housing situation being threatened.
“Many homeless [support] activities ask, ‘are you homeless? Are you fifteen days to being homeless?’” said Hassan. “It should be at least sixty days before, when you get your first eviction notice.”
Employment prospects are often slim for those leaving the service, as 70 percent of pre-9/11 veterans and 74 percent of post-9/11 veterans reported having no job lined up when they left the military. And 18 percent of pre-9/11 vets reported being unemployed and looking for work compared to 28 percent of post-9/11 veterans.
And among those who do have jobs, 76 percent of post-9/11 vets working full time earn below the state median of $67,000, while a third earn below the national household poverty line of $23,850 a year.
Among pre-9/11 vets, 62 percent earn less than the state median income and 27 percent below the national poverty level.
The employment landscape is especially grim for post-9/11 veterans. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said employers don’t understand or are insensitive to the needs of veterans, and 60 percent said employers don’t think veterans have adequate skills.
Finally, close to half said there was perception of veterans as dangerous or broken.