Tori Lyon Op Ed: Giving Vets a Softer Landing

[This piece was originally published in the New York Daily News]

This Veterans Day, we can do more than thank our veterans for their service. We can help bridge the enormous gap separating military and civilian life — and acknowledge the personal toll it can take in moving from one to the other.

Our troops receive rigorous training for deployment. They need our help with the transition of coming home and the potential dislocation that can occur. At Jericho Project, a non-profit that’s trying to get homeless individuals back on their feet, we see first-hand how difficulty with the transition can put veterans at risk.

For many of our young veterans, the military is their first real job — a place to acquire skills, confidence and a resumé of accomplishments. Service life is highly structured with every moment scheduled, and logistics of food, shelter and medical handled, so that troops can be on alert in 18-hour days.

But then they are discharged to a life that is comparatively chaotic — with economic, social and mental-health consequences.

Veterans find themselves navigating a complex and sometimes broken system of benefits. Highly specialized skills — like emergency medicine or chemical disposal — rarely transfer to civilian jobs. Veterans have to start over from the bottom, often needing a college degree to find comparable work.

These disconnects can cut deeper for veterans returning to underserved neighborhoods. Once the fanfare dies down and their savings run out, the distinctions fade. Many join the underground population of couch-surfers.

Persistent dislocation is often rooted in the invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma. In serving 550 veterans a year, we see how these sometimes unseen scars manifest themselves in substance abuse, social isolation, unemployment and homelessness.

Thankfully, we’ve learned much more about these conditions and have reduced the stigma and secrecy that surrounded them. As many as 20% of veterans have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 2010, the U.S. Veterans Administration widened the qualification for disability compensation to include impairment in daily life. Since then claims have risen by 60% to 150,000 a year.

That’s important because violent acts and threats affect even non-combat positions such as drivers, food suppliers and engineers. As Jericho resident and U.S. Navy veteran Craig Hinds, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a medical assistant and pharmacist technician, recalls, “We would sew them up and send them out.”

Hinds, who did not suffer from substance abuse, nonetheless experienced a difficult transition home. Unable to get hired in the medical profession, he moved to his mother’s and then his grandmother’s house, depleted his savings waiting for VA benefits — and landed at a veterans’ shelter in New York.

It was there we met him, and within months he moved into his own furnished studio at one of our two veterans Residences in the Bronx, in a community of fellow veterans. Case workers, social workers and employment programs are on-site.

We designed our residences with common rooms, computer centers, fitness areas and social programs. Those who can’t sleep find comfort talking with each other late at night. It is intended to provide some of the same camaraderie and cohesion our veterans experienced in the military.

Today Hinds is completing his degree in psychology. He meditates twice a day and writes about his experiences. “Transitions affect all of us — regardless of age or race.”

Some suggest that vets are on their own; they’re not. The Department of Defense’s Transition Assistance Program is pro-actively aiding veterans’ re-entry. The VA is doing its part to ensure smoother transitions as well.

But the federal government can’t do it all. As a community we need to bring our own resources to bear. We were encouraged that the New York City Council voted last week to create a Department of Veterans Services. This will help New York City take a leadership role in serving veterans, whether they served in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq or any other war.

To truly thank our veterans, we must welcome them to a home that honors their journey in getting here.

Lyon is executive director of Jericho Project, which provides supportive housing and other services to homeless individuals and families.