Where Are Veterans Returning to Civilian Life? Community College

Suicides of Troops Exceeding Combat Deaths.

The Huffington Post, and other sources, just reported June 7 that deaths from suicide had outpaced combat deaths in the Afghanistan war. During the first 155 days of the years the armed forces lost 154 troops to suicide — an alarming rate of nearly one suicide per day. According to the Huffington Post, who cited Pentagon statistics via the Associated Press, that’s about 50 percent more soldiers lost to suicide than soldiers killed in action. From the article:

The reasons for the increase are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed….

The 2012 active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3 compares to 130 in the same period last year, an 18 percent increase. And it’s more than the 136.2 suicides that the Pentagon had projected for this period based on the trend from 2001-2011. This year’s January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago, and it is 16 percent ahead of the pace for 2009, which ended with the highest yearly total thus far.

Suicide totals have exceeded U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan in earlier periods, including for the full years 2008 and 2009….

The numbers are rising among the 1.4 million active-duty military personnel despite years of effort to encourage troops to seek help with mental health problems. Many in the military believe that going for help is seen as a sign of weakness and thus a potential threat to advancement.

One Response: The Soldier’s Project

The announcement was an uncanny reminder of the plight troops face, coming the day before The Soldier’s Project‘s third annual conference. The project is a non-profit group providing free resources to veterans who may otherwise not seek treatment. The tag on their website (a good resource, if you’re interested in learning more) reads: “Free, confidential psychological counseling for military service members and their loved ones.”  I had the pleasure of attending conference, just held at USC on June 8-10, which highlighted the experiences of veterans, not just from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from conflicts as far back as Korea and Viet Nam.

A frontline of Veterans Returning to Civilian Life — Community College

One interesting facet of veterans returning to civilian life is the number of them going back to school, largely in community college settings. Service members from all over the country are discharged in California. Many of them, rather than return to areas where the economy is depressed, or wary of returning home, choose to stay in California. Many service members originally enrolled as a way of financing their education. So, faced with limited options, many do just that. Patricia D’Orange-Martin, the coordinator the Pasadena City College Veterans Resource Center, stated that a full 20% of veterans in community college have been discharged within the last 30 days. In other words, community college is one of the front lines of where returning service members meet civilian life. These are veterans who are still grappling to find their place in civilian life.

Another interesting aspect of treating this group is the difficulty in getting service members to seek services. It’s a complicated problem. First off, a significant number of veterans simply don’t identify as veterans. They never expected to do a tour of duty. When they cast off their uniform they left the service behind. As one participant stated, “I used to think of a veteran as an old guy in a baseball cap with a bunch of medals that he wears all the time — it’s not something I wanted to be a part of.” Added to that, many are concerned about how seeking services may adversely affect their benefits or the stigma of mental illness. [Apparently the next revision of DSM-V may have a new name for PTSD, rather than Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it may become Post Traumatic Injury.] Moreover, coming from a culture where you simply “get the job done” and “achieve your mission no matter what” it can be very difficult to accept the idea that you might need help.

One clinician in the audience contributed: You’d be more likely to get veterans to attend an event if you advertise something related to learning difficulties. Many vets have Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) that mean they process information at a slower rate and have memory problems. Many of them don’t even realize this is related to a TBI.

One participant at the conference shared his experience on returning from several tours of duty. His grandfather had served in the National Guard. So had his father. It was a natural thing for him to do. He never expected to do a tour of duty. He had three days to get his things together. When he returned home the storage unit where all his belongings were packed away had been damaged by flooding.

I was so sick of all the ‘we’re so proud of you bullshit’ and my stuff was destroyed. But I had no ‘Rambo moment.’ I had late onset PTSD and I had no idea what it was. ‘I’m an Army of One. I can’t have PTSD.’  After five nights of not being able to sleep I would miss a class or a show [he is a musician]. And I would say, that’s never going to happen again. But it would happen again. To cope I’d get a case of beer and a bottle of wine. I became good at avoidance and numbing. I made a suicide attempt.

He said he’d been diagnosed with an adjustment disorder. Clearly, some military returning from duty are not aware of the scope of the problems they are facing. Let alone resources they might avail themselves of. Clearly they are doing important, valuable work at the Pasadena City College Veterans Resource Center. (Click on the link, if you’re interested in more information.)


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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