Local vets are paying the price of service, but reaping few of the benefits at home.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Adrian Jimenez stands in the living room of his neatly kept north Salinas apartment and gazes at a group photo of himself and a half dozen fellow Marines. “He tried to kill himself. He chewed glass,” Jimenez says, pointing to a smiling young man. Another of the ex-soldiers is in treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A third was killed in the war. Two got bad conduct discharges for smoking marijuana. “That place does stuff to you,” Jimenez says.
Jimenez left Iraq four years ago, but the terror of the war may never leave him. “You’ve seen your friends die,” he says.
He did two tours of duty before his 21st birthday. One of them included the siege of Fallujah in 2004.
Back in Salinas, Jimenez carried a gun everywhere he went. He was so out of control that even the homeboys he hung out with urged him to take it easy. He drank and fought, and nearly went to prison twice. Instead, he enrolled in several V.A. programs where he says he quit drinking, and learned how to tamp down his anger.
But many ex-soldiers don’t get help, says Rocky Chavez, Undersecretary of California’s Department of Veterans Affairs. Just 14 percent of the state’s veterans take advantage of the benefits to which they’re entitled, he adds.
Chavez was set to host the first in a series of statewide All Hands informational meetings at Monterey Peninsula College on Wednesday, Feb. 17, to spread the word about military benefits. Post 9-11 vets can sign up for 36 months of free college tuition, a book stipend and more than $1,900 per month in living expenses, says Gaozong Thao, a veteran’s services representative at MPC. What’s more, the V.A. provides some of the highest quality mental and physical health care in the country. But vets sometimes have to fight their way into the system or endure long waits for medical care, disability and education benefits, according to a report released this month by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“It’s really difficult, and there’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through,” says Bryan Showalter, an MPC student who fought in an infantry unit in Iraq, and still battles a traumatic brain injury.
“I almost had a spirit that I didn’t care.”
Showalter applied for his education benefits in December, but they have yet to arrive.
It’s not uncommon for vets to report that they’re couch surfing or otherwise homeless because they’re waiting for GI Bill benefits, Thao says. Others come to her struggling with the transition from the battlefield to the classroom. She wants to establish an on-campus center where veterans can support each other. “But there is no space and no money,” Thao says.
That sort of vet-to-vet help is what soldiers need to make it in civilian life, Jimenez says.
Just shy of his 25th birthday, he sits at his kitchen table, his 2-year son climbing on him as if he were a jungle gym. “It’s been a wild ride,” he says. “I’m just glad I’m here with my family.”
Jimenez still battles PTSD. “I gotta work on everything,” he says. But now he can imagine a future with a new mission – to organize a group where Iraq and Afghanistan vets help each other, while reaching out to troubled kids in the community. “I’m not trying to preach the military,” Jimenez, says. But he adds that kids tend to respect veterans. “We can give these kids a different outlook.”