Bush Institute summit focuses on veterans' struggles to re-enter daily life

By JULIE FANCHER | The Dallas Morning News (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 19, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK (Tribune News Service) — Marine veteran David Smith said he wasn't sure what to do with himself after coming home from the Iraq War. Without a bachelor's degree, the only work he could find was a minimum-wage job doing construction.

In time, though, things stabilized. Smith landed a better job, attended community college and eventually enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley.

"The story you just told sounds like everything was going great," former President George W. Bush, who got to know Smith during a Wounded Warrior bicycle ride, said Wednesday during a panel discussion at the Bush Institute's second Military Service Initiative Summit. "But that wasn't the way it was, as I recall," Bush said.

Smith, who now lives in Norway, then opened up. Before an audience at a summit forum on how to help veterans re-enter civilian life, he acknowledged having such difficulty dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after his time in Iraq that he one day found himself standing in his college bedroom with a shotgun in his mouth.

But instead of pulling the trigger, he locked the gun away in his roommate's room, listened to messages from family and friends, and decided to seek help.

"I knew I couldn't do this anymore, and I knew I had to really, really make a committed decision to fix this, or it was going to take me out," he said.

Smith, who was deployed twice, said he was reluctant to seek help after his 2007 discharge because resources were lacking and he felt stigmatized for having PTSD.

"People don't want to be seen as that guy that couldn't hack it or couldn't handle it or for some reason wasn't strong enough to handle the burdens of war," he said.

Bush, who moderated Wednesday's discussion, has made veterans' well-being and their re-entry into society one of the institute's priorities.

"I have vowed that for the remainder of my life I will do all I can do to help our vets," he said.

The institute on Wednesday also released a report on how nonprofits can improve their understanding of veterans in order to help them reintegrate into life as civilians.

Bush said the number of groups available to help veterans is startling.

"In the Vietnam era, our vets weren't treated well. And in this era, our vets are treated — we think — really well, in that there are 46,000 nongovernmental organizations" serving veterans, Bush said. "The fundamental question is do they work?"

Reports released last fall by the institute in partnership with Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families described post-9/11 veterans and their families and detailed issues they face assimilating back into daily life. It also identified a lack of awareness by the public of difficulties veterans face during re-entry.

According to one of those reports, 84 percent of post-9/11 veterans said the American public doesn't understand them, while 71 percent of Americans said they don't understand the challenges the veterans face.

Those numbers led to the new research, which looked at how 25 nongovernmental organizations serve veterans in civilian life.

Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, said the study pointed out areas for improvement. For example, groups helping veterans should provide more individualized case management and create more collaborative referral networks, the report said.

Retired Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli said that while nongovernmental organizations are part of a successful transition, veterans must be willing to be assertive and seek help when needed.

"You have to take charge of your transition ... and there are a lot of folks out there that can help," Chiarelli said.

Marine Corps veteran Brian Stann of Georgia said NGO programs will be crucial in the coming years.

"The next few years is going to be one of the largest times in our country for combat veterans transitioning back into civilian life, and having some people be part of their team during that transition is going to be vital," Stann said.

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