Monterey County vets struggle with civilian life, but new projects promise help and hope.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Three grizzled Vietnam vets sit in a dimly lit room next to the bar at Seaside’s American Legion building. All African American, all moving well past middle age, they fall silent when asked where all the young vets are.
“I don’t know where they at,” one finally concedes.
Another adds: “Most of the young people are social media-type people, so that’s why. We just started a website here, and that’s the best way I know how to reach the young vets.”
Retired Army Specialist Travis Fugate, 28, has never been to the American Legion. And he spends little time with his fellow student vets at Monterey Peninsula College, where he’s been studying computer engineering for the past two years.
“I find that a lot of [younger vets] haven’t accepted who they’ve become,” Fugate says. “They’re angry, but don’t know who to be angry at.”
He’s Facebook friends with many of the men and women with whom he deployed to Iraq in 2005, but he says they don’t communicate.
“What we have now isn’t what we had before,” Fugate says. “I think we just don’t like the memories.”
• • •
The U.S. military is doing more than ever to prepare its men and women for civilian life before they exit the service. Mandatory pre-separation briefings begin addressing that transition months before soldiers come home.
But many men and women, particularly veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, are not connecting with the resources available to them. And when they do seek help, they often encounter a vast bureaucracy unable to keep up with the demand for services.
Paul Symmonds, the local coordinator for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Seamless Transition program, gets a monthly list of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. “I often make a cold call to them, just to welcome them home and tell them what services are available to them,” he says.
The response rate, he adds, is about half: An average of five or six vets per week come to the V.A. clinic on the former Fort Ord in Seaside. “It’s a tough population to get engaged,” he says. “A lot of the younger guys just want a time out [from the military].”
But a broad range of individuals and agencies across Monterey County, with some federal assists, are working to create spaces where veterans can access services, train for jobs and connect with each other.
Calvin Angel, a Monterey-based outreach specialist with CalVet, the state’s veterans affairs office, says veterans young and old, from varied military branches and conflicts, are critical to these efforts: “Vets listen to other vets.”
• • •
The Monterey County Military & Veterans Affairs Office is a cluttered, windowless space in the basement of the Monterey County Courthouse. MVAO Director Tom Griffin – a stout, stern man who frequently references his three tours of duty in Vietnam – says the military’s not doing enough to prepare soldiers for civilian life, leaving the hard work to local agencies like his.
“In my estimation, the military’s programs have been an utter failure,” says Griffin, his face flushing pink as his voice rises. “When [soldiers] get out, they don’t know where to go and what to do. It’s like, ‘OK, I don’t have a squad leader! I have to make my own decision about whether to take this bus!’”
The sudden independence after years of subordination can be harrowing, Fugate says. “Suddenly, you’re in the civilian world, and you have to make decisions on your own,” he says. “You don’t have a squad leader showing you around. It’s terrifying.”
Many vets respond to the challenging process of reintegration – applying for V.A. benefits, looking for work, coping with physical injuries and emotional trauma – not by reaching out, but by hiding at their parents’ house, on a friend’s couch, or on the streets. Veterans made up 13 percent of Monterey County’s homeless population in 2011, up from 9 percent in 2009, according to the county’s Homeless Census.
The V.A.’s March 31 report counts almost 772,000 vets back from Iraq and Afghanistan who accessed V.A. health services between October 2001 – when U.S. forces first entered Afghanistan – and December 2011. In 2011 alone, some 477,000 vets from those operations used V.A. health care. But the report doesn’t count the 600,000-plus Iraq and Afghanistan vets who haven’t connected with the V.A. at all.
CalVet runs a reintegration action plan specifically dedicated to connecting the state’s 2 million vets to resources. But it’s up to the vets to follow through with psychologist referrals and case-manager appointments.
“We lose a certain percentage of guys if we don’t get them quickly,” Angel says.
But he and Griffin also concede they’re overworked and understaffed. “Because there are so many vets coming in to file for benefits, most of the time we can’t even do same-day appointments,” Griffin says. “Some come in, [and] they don’t get seen. Sometimes they come back the next day, but sometimes they don’t.”
Some of those who have attempted to navigate the V.A. on their own have been sucked into months-long waiting games, losing faith as the days drag on.
• • •
Jeanne OBrien’s East Salinas home has a tidy, well-loved feel to it. There’s a floral-print couch from Craigslist; a baker’s rack in primary colors, stacked high with jars of spices and grains; a nutcracker in military fatigues, standing sentinel on the fireplace mantle.
OBrien, 41, loves that the house is hers to decorate as she pleases, a far cry from life in military barracks. “It’s a sense of freedom and independence I haven’t had for years,” she says – not since before her 2006 Army enlistment and tour of duty in Afghanistan, where she was a supply delivery driver. “I was the only female who regularly went outside the wire,” she says.
Seven months into her deployment, OBrien was hit with debris from an improvised explosive device blast. She was treated onsite for her head injury and other external wounds, and continued to work for the next three months. But her physical pain and increasing emotional instability proved insurmountable, and she was airlifted out of Afghanistan in September 2007. Diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and suffering from nerve damage that confines her to a wheelchair, she was honorably discharged and spent 18 months recuperating at Fort Bragg, N.C. Her partner and full-time caregiver, Chris Paynter, moved out from California to be by her side.
But neither knew where to turn when they moved back to the Monterey Peninsula in 2009. She says her claim for chronic back, neck and ankle pain, filed in May 2009, took the V.A. nearly 18 months to process.
The V.A. reports that it takes nine to ten months for an initial claim to be processed. Appeals for those initially denied take an average of 375 days to be resolved.
But OBrien’s story is reportedly a common one, judging by the stories on the Facebook page for the V.A. Benefit Blog, which bills itself as a one-stop shop for info about vets’ education, health and housing.
The V.A. overhauled operations at 12 of its offices after The Bay Citizen reported the backlog of disability claims had risen to 870,000 nationwide – despite a $300-million investment in a new computerized claims processing system and the hiring of over 2,000 new claims officers. More office overhauls are in the works, with 56 scheduled for completion by the end of 2013, according to a V.A. spokeswoman.
The V.A. considers a claim “in backlog” when it’s more than 125 days old. Even by that standard there are still 578,000 backlogged claims nationwide, she says.
During OBrien’s claim limbo, she and Paynter struggled to avoid homelessness, sleeping in friends’ garages. Paynter can’t work, she adds, because he must be with her at all times.
“You’re trying to make do on nothing,” she says. “If it weren’t for Chris’s family and friends of ours, I would have been on the street in a wheelchair.”
• • •
Fernando Armenta, Jr. was deployed to Iraq with a Marine infantry reserve unit in April 2003. He served one tour of duty before a head injury ended his military career.
“He’s come a long way, but it’s still not easy,” says his father, Fernando Armenta, a Monterey County supervisor and Vietnam vet.
Armenta says Fernando Jr. now suffers from PTSD, hearing loss, carpal tunnel syndrome and brain trauma. Fernando Jr. and his wife divorced two years after he returned; she took their two sons, ages 11 and 6, to live with her in Pebble Beach. The family visits him regularly at his home in Hanford, south of Fresno. (Fernando, Jr. declined to be interviewed for this story.)
“We just want to make sure he’s OK, and make sure he has food in the fridge,” the elder Armenta says, sighing. “His mother said he’s very withdrawn.”
OBrien knows that feeling. “When you deploy with your unit, your platoon becomes closer than family,” she says. “When you come home, you don’t belong in the military world anymore, but you don’t belong in the civilian world. Where do you fit?”
This profound sense of alienation, combined with battle scars both visible and not, can lead some to seek a way out.
“They feel they’re trying to teach someone a language they don’t understand,” says Carly Galarneau of Suicide Prevention Service, a 24-hour crisis line and outreach organization serving Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties.
Galarneau says the number of callers voluntarily identifying as vets has increased over the past several years. “We’re just starting to get calls from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. They’re breaking their secrecy and finding out where to get help locally,” she says. “They go through the V.A. crisis line and don’t always get what they need. I’ve spoken with people who felt they were lost in a very big system.”
An alarming series of vet murder-suicides nationwide this year, including one not far from the Monterey Peninsula, has drawn further attention to veterans’ fragile mental health.
In late February, Gilroy police visited the home of Abel Gutierrez, a 27-year-old Iraq veteran diagnosed with PTSD, because family members had expressed concern about his erratic and occasionally violent behavior. The police began working with the family and the Palo Alto V.A. center to connect Gutierrez to services, but the intervention came too late: On March 15, Gutierrez shot and killed his mother and 11-year-old sister before taking his own life.
• • •
Symmonds says timely intervention often leads to complete recovery. “But many veterans don’t seek help, either figuring the effects will go away in time, or fearing the stigma of being thought of as crazy.”
The V.A. has local representatives well-versed in vets’ needs. OBrien, for example, found a home with help from V.A. Supportive Housing Case Manager Beth Caine, though the application process took nearly two years.
“Beth helped me with the paperwork and the property visits,” OBrien says. “She was with me every step of the way.”
The program, run in conjunction with the federal office of Housing and Urban Development, provides Section 8 vouchers and case management services to sober veterans. (Marina’s Veterans Transition Center provides transitional housing to homeless vets who struggle with addiction.)
OBrien first learned about V.A. Supportive Housing through a Santa Cruz “stand down,” one of many large-scale service fairs nationwide providing clothing, meals, medical assistance, employment referrals and more to homeless veterans.
She also met one of her best friends there. She now lives down the street from him, and both are taking classes at MPC, which along with CSU Monterey Bay and Hartnell College is recognized as a “military-friendly” campus – offering credits through the post-9/11 G.I. bill.
Monterey County held its first-ever stand down June 19-21 at the Salinas Rodeo grounds. Co-sponsored by the Veterans Transition Center and the United Veterans Council of Monterey County, it was the culmination of efforts by the Veterans Collaborative since its founding in 2008.
The stand down was a step toward a permanent, one-stop center for county vets. The goal is to provide a full spectrum of services, from mental health screenings to résumé help, in a single location. A computer lab, mental health counseling, benefits assistance and more will be available through the center.
CalVet’s Calvin Angel and Michael Magpusao, who works for the V.A.’s Project Hired program in Palo Alto, shared a vision for a place where veterans – especially the younger ones – could not just receive services, but also connect. “Giving veterans the opportunity to come together and commiserate is invaluable,” Angel says.
Magpusao, a 34-year-old vet, says the center’s website is key. “It’s got to be seamless with the physical location,” he says. “We need to make it easy and very interactive.”
Unlike Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion outposts, where social life often revolves around the bar, Magpusao wants the Salinas center to be dry. “We’re not a generation to come together and drink away our sorrows and woes,” Magpusao says.
Fugate agrees. “One of the reasons [young] guys don’t go to the VFWs is because they’re terrified of becoming associated with the stigma of the crazy old American veteran,” he says.
Angel and Magpusao, working in conjunction with the county Veterans Collaborative, are launching a year-long fundraising campaign for the center at the end of the summer. As of late June, they did not have a specific location for the center, but Angel says they’d welcome a donated building.
Local projects need federal help, and U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who sits on the House Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, is their point man in Washington. Farr has long championed a V.A. and Department of Defense joint clinic on the former Fort Ord to serve Central Coast vets, their families and active-duty troops. Currently, Palo Alto’s V.A. medical center is the closest.
“I’ve been saying for years it’s no good to only help vets who live in Palo Alto, and not vets in King City,” he says.
In late March, the V.A. selected a site near Marina’s Peninsula Wellness Center on Imjin Road for the 150,000-square-foot facility, and will solicit developer bids in the fall. Farr spokesperson Adam Russell says a request for proposals will go out by early September, and the 18-month construction process should begin before year’s end. If all goes as planned, the doors will open in 2016.
But some vets with more significant medical needs will still make frequent trips to Palo Alto, where specialists in traumatic brain injury and physical therapy help them adapt to a changed body in a now-unfamiliar world.
• • •
Travis Fugate is wearing sunglasses despite the overcast Monterey skies. His handshake, though firm, is gentler than one might expect from a retired Army specialist. He walks confidently across the courtyard of his apartment complex and up the stairs to his front door. It’s not until he fumbles for the doorknob that it becomes apparent that he’s blind.
In his 2009 testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Fugate told how he lost his sight over the course of three years. The first blow came on May 18, 2005, when he was hit in the face by an improvised explosive device on a routine mission just south of Baghdad. The blast mangled his face, traumatically injured his brain, destroyed his right eye and severely impaired the vision in his left eye.
Army medics performed emergency surgery on his face in the Green Zone, then airlifted him to Germany before sending him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Arlington, Va. Fugate was comatose for more than a month as surgeons repaired his facial tissue and eye sockets.
When he returned home to rural eastern Kentucky in 2005, he had 20/200 vision and was legally blind. “I could see colors, shapes, large print and shadows,” Fugate testified. “I could see which girls were pretty and which ones weren’t.”
At first he battled PTSD, anxiety, near-suicidal depression, the loss of his vision and sense of smell. “The first Christmas back home I just felt like a ghost,” he recalls. “I was there, sitting among my family, but I was just so far away.”
There were many long nights when he didn’t want to live to see the sunrise. Antidepressants and family support helped him get back on an even keel and into a three-month physical rehab program at Walter Reed. He spent much of 2006 relearning how to walk.
Two years later, a splitting headache sent Fugate to the Lexington emergency room. “The upper left hemisphere of my face was so swollen that my eyelids swelled together,” he testified. “And that was the last time I had any sight.”
When he became completely blind in 2008, he shipped off to Chicago’s Hines V.A. Blind Rehabilitation Center. This time, he used a cane to walk up and down sidewalks with an instructor, learning to safely cross the street. By the end of the program, he was confident enough to take trains by himself.
He moved to Washington, D.C., but the pace was too fast for him. The director of the disabled vets organization Sentinels of Freedom, which had awarded him a four-year grant to help him transition to civilian life, referred him to a group of professionals in Monterey who wanted to work with disabled vets. He made the move several months later and enrolled in computer engineering classes at MPC.
“I fell in love with Monterey,” he says. “The people were so genuine, and sincerely wanted to help.”
Fugate’s mentors helped him arrange visits to tech start-ups in the Bay Area, where he gives feedback to programmers working on products for the blind, deaf and physically impaired. The visits sometimes coincide with his trips to rehab at the Palo Alto V.A.
“I want to help make technology more accessible for everyone,” Fugate says. “I’m thinking about how future technologies will apply to people who can’t see or who don’t have arms to touch things.”
He’s well on his way. In May, he completed his coursework at MPC and will be pursuing a degree in computer science and information technology at CSUMB.
The surgeons at Walter Reed were reconstruction artists. Fugate’s face shows few signs of scarring; the most noticeable sign of his injury is an acrylic eye in a slightly misshapen right socket. But he struggles with his reliance on others.
“I was a soldier,” he says. “I protected people, and then here I am, and there’s an old woman opening the door for me.”
Fugate relies on inner strength to get him through the day. His approach to life is embodied by the black tattoo on his right inner arm, which he got about a year after his injury, of Houdini hanging upside down with a straitjacket on.
“I thought, that’s where I am,” he says. “I’m restrained, I’m tied down. I’m hanging by my feet. And then I thought, but that’s Houdini! He gets out of that, but it’s a real struggle for him. It’s an expression of my vulnerability, and an acknowledgment that I can get out of it, that I can wiggle my way free. It’s a beautiful struggle.”
LOCAL RESOURCES FOR VETERANS
Monterey County Veteran Services Collaborative | www.help-4-vets.org
Coordinated by Alma McHoney with the county’s Office for Employment Training, the Collaborative is comprised of over 50 agencies and organizations, from Marina’s Veterans Transition Center to Monterey-Salinas Transit, that are working together to serve the county’s veteran population. The Collaborative’s accompanying website, help-4-vets.org, lists partners and contacts at local VA and state Employment Development Department offices, as well as veterans offices at local community colleges and universities. The full collaborative meets at 9am every third Thursday at the county’s One Stop Career Center, 730 La Guardia St., Salinas.
Central Coast Veteran Mobile Medical Van | 831-796-3316; email@example.com
Provides basic medical treatment and V.A. enrollment and referrals free of charge to veterans in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties. Below are days and locations for Monterey County stops.
Monterey Peninsula College | 980 Fremont St., Monterey
First Thursday of every month, 10am-3pm when school is in session.
King City Agricultural Commission Complex | Corner of Canal and Broadway streets, King City
Last Wednesday of every month, 10am-3pm.
Salinas One Stop Career Center | 730 La Guardia St., Salinas
First Wednesday of every month, 10am-3pm.
Vocational Rehabilitation Specialists, Inc. | www.vrspecialists.com
This small Marina provides veterans and service members with one-on-one vocational training, career counseling and job placement assistance. Founded by U.S. Army veteran John Garske, VRSI received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor last August to provide homeless veterans with job training aimed at helping them succeed in civilian careers.
Suicide Prevention Service of the Central Coast | 831-649-8008 Toll free 1-877-ONE-LIFE (1-877-663-5433)
Mental health professionals and trained volunteers are standing by 24/7 to assist anyone considering suicide. The hotline serves Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties.
Military Anonymous | www.Militaryanonymous.net
This online forum for veterans from all military branches and conflicts attempts to reach the vets suffering from mental illness related to their time in battle. Visitors to the site can watch videos on stress reduction techniques, hear success and survival stories from World War II, Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, and connect with other military families. Military Anonymous is in beta testing (see sidebar, p. 20). For more information, contact co-founder Jon Elber at 624-4533.