PITTSBURGH — When local veterans return home from Iraq or Afghanistan, surviving the peace can be more difficult than enduring the war.
Painful experiences and losses remain etched in people's memories, making adjustment to civilian life hard. While navigating that tough transition, many veterans are also seeking work, a place to live, medical care and more education. Some dream of starting their own business.
A free symposium, held Saturday at Community College of Allegheny County on the city's North Side, offered sessions on finding employment, becoming an entrepreneur, obtaining benefits, managing stress and financing an education.
During a lunchtime panel discussion, participants heard a thoughtful pep talk from Michael Cherock, a successful entrepreneur and president of AE Works, an East Liberty-based architecture and engineering firm that also has offices in State College and in Silver Spring, Md.
Mr. Cherock told his audience that he started his own business seven years ago partly because he missed being part of something larger than himself. When he returned to Pittsburgh from his engineering duties aboard a nuclear Navy submarine in 1996, he worked at companies that he thought lacked a clear purpose and among people who seemed to care only about their self-interest. He missed the challenges, sense of purpose and teamwork he had relished in the military.
So, seven years ago, in the basement of his home, he founded AE Works, which now employs 31 full-time workers.
"Do you want to serve again?" Mr. Cherock asked his audience. "You have to choose to serve again if you want to find success after service," he said, adding that veterans should consider serving their families, communities, fellow veterans or in a particular industry.
Improving the experience that veterans have in his courtroom was the goal of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John Zottola, who sees veterans charged with crimes twice a month.
The judge, who has presided over veterans court since 2009, held an informal brainstorming session with federal and state court officials.
One issue was how to make productive use of the time veterans spend waiting to have their cases heard.
One suggestion was bringing in motivational speakers or ceramics instructors who can show people how to work with clay and/or teach yoga.
Those ideas came from Theo Collins, a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who served in Afghanistan and is associate producer of a film called "Project 22."
The documentary's team, which visited Pittsburgh last October, aims to raise people's awareness about the high suicide rate among veterans. A report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, based on records from 21 states, found that 22 veterans committed suicide each day in 2010.
Team-building experiences such as sailing, horseback riding or hiking can help veterans feel more connected and less isolated, Mr. Collins said.
"You get off the plane from Iraq or Afghanistan and the V.A. gives you a bottle of Ambien and says, 'We'll see you in two weeks,' " Mr. Collins said.
Finding jobs for unemployed veterans is essential, Mr. Collins said, because those who are idle have lots of free time.
"They're just replaying in their head what they lived through," he added.