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Study finds troops aren't ready for civilian life

By SIG CHRISTENSON | San Antonio Express-News | Published: October 1, 2014

A new study released Tuesday says half of U.S. troops return civilian life with untreated mental and physical illnesses, and one in every 10 has thought of suicide or planned to take their lives.

The survey of Los Angeles County veterans showed that 80 percent of veterans didn't have a job when they left the military, and close to a quarter earned salaries at or below the poverty level.

It also discovered that 40 percent of the veterans surveyed hadn't made arrangements for a permanent place to live before leaving the armed services, contributing to veterans' homelessness.

Though the snapshot of veterans was taken in Los Angeles County, where slightly more Hispanics and Asians resettle after leaving the armed forces, the lead author of the USC School of Social Work study said it reflected issues veterans face nationwide.

“I believe these findings are applicable across the U.S., and apply equally to all separating service members,” said retired Army Col. Carl Castro, research director of USC's Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families.

The survey comes amid a Pentagon drawdown driven by ever-tightening budgets. This time next year, the active-duty Army will stand at 490,000 soldiers, down from 570,000, while the National Guard and Reserves will lose 5,500 troops.

Steeper cuts will come if sequestration isn't reversed, with the active-duty Army falling to 420,000. The Air Force will cut 19,000 airmen by fall of 2018. The Marines will trim 18,000 of their 192,000 troops from their ranks by the fall of 2016, most of it through attrition. The Navy will remain stable.

In its survey of 1,850 veterans, USC found that half of them had a significant physical or mental health issue that was left untreated. Pre- and post-9/11 veterans said they had arm, leg and joint pain, back problems and trouble sleeping.

Troops leaving the services had needs no single organization could provide. While most veterans' support organizations help people with acute health issues and homelessness, the study said little attention is given to preventing problems.

The way soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines often leave the services is part of the problem. Many of them in Los Angeles County, home to 325,000 veterans - largest in the nation - told the USC researchers they left the military without a job lined up or a permanent residence to call home.

Nationwide, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said there were almost 58,000 homeless veterans during a survey in January 2013. The figure had dropped by about 25 percent since a VA initiative in 2010 to reduce homelessness.

A survey in San Antonio this year found 263 homeless veterans, but Bexar County Veterans Service Officer Queta Marquez said the number is likely higher. Haven for Hope, the city's largest homeless residential facility, serves an average of 72 veterans a year.

The USC survey also found that two-thirds of post-9/11 women veterans said they were sexually harassed on duty.

"It is hard to know whether these L.A. County numbers might be representative of the nation. If they are, almost 40 percent of the women who risked their lives in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks were raped or assaulted while serving our country,” said Protect Our Defenders' Nancy Parrish, a staunch critic of the way the military handles sexual assaults. “That is reprehensible.”

Castro, who headed the Army's medical research program before leaving the military, praised the Pentagon's Transition GPS program, which helps troops return to civilian life. But, he said, too many are overconfident.

“Service members believe finding a civilian job that pays them the equivalent to their military salary is going to be easy, and they are generally shocked to discover this is not the case,” he said.

sigc@express-news.net

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©2014 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

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