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Vets in LA can text other vets for help with new program

By JENNIFER HLAD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 3, 2015

LOS ANGELES — As thousands of troops leave the military each month without jobs or a plan for permanent housing, a new text messaging program will link vets to peers who can connect them to the services and support they need. 

The University of Southern California School of Social Work Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families — known as USC CIR — last year surveyed LA veterans and learned that more than two-thirds had difficulties adjusting to civilian life, but did not know who to call for help.

The center partnered with 211 LA County, the county government, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and Volunteers of America to create an online portal for veteran resources. But advocates wanted to do more. Now, those groups are working on a text-to-chat program that allows veterans to text “vet” to activate the service and be instantly connected with a “battle buddy.”

The idea is “real-time support,” said Nathan Graeser, a community liaison with USC CIR and an Army reservist. 

Veterans tend to underreport problems, and they traditionally don’t reach out for help until they have exhausted all of their resources, he said.

When they do seek help, Graeser said, they don’t want to have to go to a website. They want to be able to interact with a person, particularly if that person is a peer.

The organizations chose text messages “to provide an outlet for outreach and support on a medium they already use,” he said.

The battle buddies who respond to the veteran texts will be trained as peer-support specialists, said Jim Zenner, assistant director of clinical veteran services at Volunteers of America Greater Los Angeles.

The battle buddies also are vets, so they have navigated many of the same systems and will be able to provide advice and introductions from experience.

“We know exactly what it’s like,” said Zenner, who served in the Army’s 3rd Stryker Brigade and deployed to Iraq. “Having them be the first point of contact is really setting up a system of care in which veterans aren’t going to fall through the cracks.”

Veterans miss out on a lot of resources, he said, because they avoid the VA or they use only the VA, which isn’t aware of all the community help.

LA County has the highest number of homeless veterans in the country, but also has hundreds of groups dedicated to helping veterans.

The text-to-chat program, expected to be online by the end of the summer, will bridge the gap and get help to veterans who need it, he said.

hlad.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @jhlad
 

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