California is home to nearly 1.8 million veterans, with more than 325,000 living in Los Angeles. But as troops leave the nation's longest-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and service members complete their tours of duty, another 12,000 new veterans are expected to be added to our local population annually.
What can these veterans expect when they return home? A study by the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families (CIR) at the USC School of Social Work found that veterans are woefully unprepared for the transition from military to civilian life. Nearly 80 percent report not having a job lined up; more than 40 percent don't know where they'll live. More than half report a physical or mental health issue for which they aren't receiving care. What's worse is that nearly two-thirds report not knowing where to go for help.
Our findings confirm what we had long believed to be the case. Our separating service members are not getting the help and services they need -- and deserve.
Until now, comprehensive data on a large veteran population in an urban area like Los Angeles was simply not available. We didn't have the quantitative information needed to drive better policies and improve services. But now we do.
The Los Angeles County Veterans Study included many concrete recommendations on how we can assist veterans, many of which focused on prevention and early interventions in the transition process when such actions can have the most impact. Presently, most veteran support organizations are focused on meeting the chronic needs of veterans like homelessness, while failing to address their holistic needs and preventing these conditions or intervening early to prevent them from becoming chronic. Our current system of care for veterans lacks the coordination needed to do this and do it well.
A key recommendation of the study is to establish more coordination between the federal government and local support agencies before a service member transitions home. This includes adding new elements to the military's current Transition Goals, Plans and Success Program (GPS), which all service members must participate in before leaving the military. Recommendations include allowing service members to receive civilian job training before they exit the military, and requiring that a primary Transition GPS outcome entail having a legitimate job offer before separation. Transition GPS could also be used to verify that soon-to-be-veterans have permanent and sustainable housing lined up when they leave the military. On the home front, communities can also do more to engage family and friends of returning service members with targeted public awareness campaigns that can alert them to referral agencies, available resources and the realities associated with their transition to the civilian community.
Early intervention could also be enhanced with better information sharing between the Department of Defense and Department of Labor and local communities. If local communities had more information about separating service members, they could be better prepared to help veterans upon their return. This is especially true for physical and mental health services, which a majority of those surveyed are not currently accessing. Mandating complete psychological and physical health evaluations for all separating service members, regardless of stated health and health screening results, would be another preventative measure that could alert veterans the help they will need when returning home.
Without a doubt, the transition from the military to home is complicated and multi-faceted. Veterans deserve to have a coordinated system of care that is accessible, culturally competent and prevention focused. We believe Los Angeles can be the model of how that can happen.
The partnership announced between CIR and the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to create a citywide veteran's strategy is an encouraging first step. But as a community -- and as a nation -- we need to do more, and now we have the data to measure our progress. Let's hope that what we can accomplish here in Los Angeles can serve as an example for other communities across America on how to come together to support our veterans' holistic needs when they return home.