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Kyle Hansen, 28, stands outside his home in Mission Viejo, on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Hansen, a squad leader with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, left the Marines in 2018 after he was injured in an amphibious assault vehicle accident at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. He transferred to the Wounded Warrior Battalion, got help and then set out for civilian life. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Kyle Hansen, 28, stands outside his home in Mission Viejo, on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Hansen, a squad leader with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, left the Marines in 2018 after he was injured in an amphibious assault vehicle accident at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. He transferred to the Wounded Warrior Battalion, got help and then set out for civilian life. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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Kyle Hansen had almost fulfilled his service contract with the Marine Corps when he was injured in a training accident at Camp Pendleton.

When he left the service in 2018, he moved back home to Mission Viejo with his parents and set out to navigate the civilian world, a task he knew could be difficult given little preparation and the medical challenges he faced from being badly burned and having a brain injury.

“Some people I know slept in cars, and some went to drugs,” said Hansen, now 28, of fellow Marines also leaving the service. “You realize life is hard and how important it is to become a great American now, even more than when I was serving.”

Despite not having a job lined up before he left Camp Pendleton, a connection with a fellow Marine veteran who’d started a solar company helped Hansen start becoming financially stable. But a recently published USC report, “The State of the American Veteran: The Southern California Veterans Study,” out of the Suzanne Dworak-Pack’s School of Social Work, found many Southern California veterans struggle.

The study, led by Sara Kintzle, an associate research professor, queried more than 3,000 veterans – most were non-commissioned and junior level – from Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego counties who had served in the Army, Navy and Marines. Though most served between 2001 and 2016, there were also older vets represented.

Sara Kintzle, USC Associate Professor at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Military and Veterans Programs, at the Tierney Center for Veteran Services in Tustin on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Kintzle gave a presentation about her study on veterans and their efforts and challenges in reintegrating into the civilian world to the members of the Orange County Veterans and Military Families Collaborative. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The study follows several others done more than a decade ago, allowing for comparisons to see what has improved as more community groups, nonprofits and government agencies have stepped up their efforts to serve the needs of local veterans. Familiar topics of a lack of preparation, mental health issues and stigmas, housing and food insecurities and loneliness re-emerged.

Some 69% of veterans said when they left the military, they felt like they had to start over; 54% said adjusting to civilian life was complicated. More than 30% left the service without a job line up; nearly 40% met the diagnostic criteria for rate among the veterans polled was a reported 23%.

“It’s slightly sad to see so many similarities (to what) we saw in 2012,” said Aimee Bravo, an Air Force veteran still active in the reserves and the director of the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative. “We’re doing stuff better, but it’s taking a really long time.”

The new study examines the emergence of community-based programs and the formation of collaboratives – the first was in Los Angeles – that now network for the good of service members and their families. Private, public and government agencies are now increasingly working together and coordinating to improve access to services, reducing barriers to care, and influencing policy.

“Access to service is a big one,” Bravo said of the study’s key takeaways. “The disconnect had to do with knowing what services were available from a plethora of 800 numbers.”

To help with that in Los Angeles County, the Veteran Peer Access Network was formed, the first collaborative of its kind in the nation run by veterans, where veterans are paired up as “battle buddies” to navigate the levels of resources available.

“It’s doing such a wonderful job that the Orange County Military Families Collaborative is trying to do it also,” Bravo said.

Getting the veterans – and their families – the individualized help they need makes all the difference, especially when it comes to securing jobs and housing and food stability – high among risk factors for veterans, the study found.

Bravo said her collaborative is also hard at work pushing for policy and legislative changes to remove some of the barriers veterans face. For example rules that count VA disability compensation toward income that can disqualify veterans from housing.

Bravo said she plans to visit lawmakers in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C. this year to push for the Home For the Brave Act that, if passed, would remove the service-connected disability money from a veteran’s income for housing purposes.

“People with the largest need can’t get help,” she said. “Especially for the oldest veterans, now that access to housing is limited.”

The study found that among the most significant barriers for veterans is just getting out of the gate after being discharged. Answers from veterans indicated that 33% of active duty service members leave without a job or housing plan, 28% found it was too difficult to look for a job while still on active duty and 18% reported thinking getting a job would be easy because of their service.

As a result, 83% of veterans reported having housing problems, with the most common solution being about 36% of veterans moving back in with their parents. Only 24% reported being able to rent their own place.

Some who served at bases far from family found themselves crashing with friends or living in cars or hotel rooms to stay in the area.

Patrick Keplinger, a services program manager for the Marine Corps Community Services Program at Camp Pendleton, said he wasn’t surprised by those data points. Housing instability starts with a lack of preparation while still on active duty, he said, and similar to what their military occupation specialty was.

“Coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, so much of society pumped us up,” said Keplinger, who served as a major in the Marines and was part of the early invasion in Iraq. “The sense I had, and my buddies had, was that, ‘Of course, I’m going to get a job.’

“Companies say they’re veteran-friendly, but they’re really not,” he said. “If you tout yourself as being veteran-friendly, get rid of barriers like requiring certain types of resumes. A lot of us had a false sense of security.”

In this 2023 file photo, OCFA engineer Chad Butts, left, and OCFA firefighter Serge Morosoff, right, both career Marines, speak with Marines transitioning out of the Marine Corps and working in the fire service as a possible career during the Fall Career Exploration and Hiring Event, on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Each year, nearly 35,000 Marines transition from the Marine Corps to civilian life. At Camp Pendleton, it’s about 9,000 annually – 77% of those after completing a four- or five-year contract.

“In the Marine Corps, it takes three months to become a Marine  – that’s just to become a Marine,” Keplinger said. “Then you learn combat skills and then your job. When you leave, you get one week of transition (preparation) – and you do that one year ahead. The transition times need to be longer and more at the end of their service.”

Kintzle and her research team concluded that each service member should have a job lined up before they leave military service and that they should understand what constitutes stable housing. They also should be provided with realistic expectations of what happens in the civilian world and be prepared for the emotional difficulty that accompanies returning to civilian life.

“Ideally, they’d sit with a financial counselor and understand tax and housing implications,” Keplinger said of the exiting Marines, who largely entered the service straight out of high school. “If you live on base, you don’t know what it’s like to pay for gas, water, cable. If you live in the barracks, how do you plan for groceries? They need a couple of days of classes for career exploration and to understand what a $50,000 job means compared to a $100,000 job.

“And understand what the rest of the world looks like,” he added. “Southern California is different than North Carolina or Idaho. Politically, how do these areas feel about veterans? Then figure out, ‘What is your plan?’ Nine thousand leave the gates; once they leave, we don’t know what happens to them.”

and the chair of Saddleback College’s Veterans Education & Transition Services program. Each week, he spends at day at Camp Pendleton’s School of Infantry speaking with Marines who are planning to separate from the service.

“Initially, they see me as a representative of Saddleback to help them with education, but as the relationship continues, I dive into all the other topics,” Williams said. “All those things matter. They are all pieces of the puzzle, including mental health. If they’re not well mentally, then that can make the process even more difficult.”

The study found that most veterans don’t seek care for mental health issues despite the health benefits of doing so and the numerous resources available.

“A majority of veterans believe they possess the necessary skills to manage their own behavioral problems, which is a consistent and pervasive barrier for veterans getting the health care they need,” Kintzle found.

Loneliness – manifested by a loss of camaraderie – was prevalent among veterans surveyed.

Williams said. “If (they are) not from California and they have no family here when they discharge, no one has our back. When you’re dealing with a change in identity, it becomes a problem, especially when you combine that with not seeking help for mental health.”

Williams first met Hansen at Camp Pendleton and then again at Saddleback College. Because he was injured, Hansen had support from the Wounded Warrior Battalion West, an organization that Williams said should be a model for supporting Marines as they leave the service.

“He had a lot going on then with his disability,” Williams said. “Kyle is a great example of someone who took the initiative and made things work despite his challenges. He’s the exception to have dealt with so much, but come out good on the back end.”

Nearly five years later, Hansen held onto his job in the solar industry – and is now even pursuing his dream of opening his own bar – while also growing with a fellow Marine to help other veterans while also being good stewards of the earth. The group holds beach cleanups that provide service members some one-on-one time with people who might be able to guide them into new careers.

Kintzle said the study found many veterans are most comfortable getting connected to resources through other veterans who’ve had positive experiences.

“Vets rely so much on word of mouth,” she said. “Those experiences can be helpful in getting other veterans to seek care. That is where the most positive outcome comes from. A little bit of help and prevention is so important when you can change things, including finding a place to live and a job to keep them stable.”

Since the study’s release, Kintzle said she has presented its results to about 40 groups connected to veterans services. Her goal is for these organizations to use the information to measure their success and see what they can do better.

“My hope is that we improve service and understand what new services are needed and get it to people who have impact on policy,” she said. “How might we think about loneliness, improve the cultural stigma and build interactions to address more of these issues?”

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