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5 years after benchmark study, what’s changed for OC veterans?

The number of military veterans in Orange County — about 130,000 — has held steady in the five years since researchers at USC wrote “The State of the American Veteran: The Orange County Veterans Study,” a landmark report  on their well being.

But during that period, local efforts to help those veterans — mostly Vietnam War-era service personnel and those who have joined the military since 9/11 — have made some huge gains.

While some areas still need improvement, there is generally more help available in Orange County and more trust between veterans and those who would assist them.

That’s the preliminary finding of a new analysis from the philanthropic group that launched the 2015 report, the Orange County Veterans Initiative.



The new analysis, conducted by Harder+Company Community Research, found that local organizers need to further streamline and centralize their efforts, and get the word out to veterans and their families that there are services that can help them transition to civilian life.

The full report is expected in late December. It was commissioned by Orange County Community Foundation, the same philanthropic engine behind the Veterans Initiative and the 2015 study.

Much of the information is based on surveys of 53 people from organizations that received grants from Orange County Veterans Initiative. Carol Ferguson, director of donor relations and programs for the foundation, said she’s happy with what the analysis shows so far.

“The increased collaboration is night and day from what it was,” Ferguson said.

Luke Hixson is experiencing the benefits of that.

Hixson, 22, a U.S. Navy hospitalman whose five years of service ends in December, hopes to segue from his military role as a lab supervisor for a medical clinic at Camp Pendleton, to a four-year university and, eventually, a career as a doctor.

His prospects have been enhanced by his recent participation in the Warrior-Scholar Project at UC Irvine, one of the programs funded by Orange County Veterans Initiative since 2015.

This summer, Hixson attended a humanities boot camp, held virtually this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, that helped him prepare for the academic rigor that will be expected  if he attends a top-level school. He’s applied at about a dozen schools, including UCI, several Ivy League schools and Stanford and UC Berkeley.

Hixson, adopted by missionaries in China and raised in Tennessee, said the Warrior-Scholar Project helped him understand how ideas can be exchanged and explored in college — and boosted his confidence.

“If you disagree, it’s OK,” said Hixson, who lives in Oceanside during the week and at his girlfriend’s family home in Fountain Valley on weekends.

“In the military, if you disagree, it’s like ‘Let’s fight.’”

Then and now

The 2015 study surveyed 1,227 ex-service members to get a more in-depth look at their circumstances.

Their answers, particularly from the post-9/11 veterans, focused on significant struggles in transitioning from the military to civilian life. Many reported trouble securing housing and dealing with health issues. And two out of three in the survey said they did not have a job lined up before leaving the military; many post  9/11 veterans noted how hard it was to find full-time work.

Some said they felt burned by organizations or charities that lured them in with promises of help that went unfulfilled.

Their responses also showed a reluctance on the part of some veterans — which continues — to interact with the Veterans Affairs government office that administers their benefits.

The new analysis by Harder+Company, conducted between May and June, is based on focus groups that included veterans and family members, along with the input from organizations and support services that got funding from the Veterans Initiative.

Overall, according to data provided by the Veterans Initiative,  97% of respondents feel that their organization “is part of a stronger system to connect veterans and their families to the services and opportunities they need to succeed.”

That system has been strengthened with money. More than $4 million in grants has been awarded to local veterans groups over the past five years. The lion’s share, $2.4 million, was raised through the annual Orange County Real Estate Luncheon.

The $4 million went on to help some 25,000 veterans and family members through 17 grantees. These included Veteran Resource Centers located on three local college campuses, programs that help veterans with civilian transition and mental health, and outreach accessed through Goodwill of Orange County’s Tierney Center for Veterans Services in Tustin.

Two local programs that the Veterans Initiative helped launch have become sustainable on their own — a free dental service offered by Lestonnac Free Clinic, and an Easterseals Southern California employment program.

The Tierney Center is a prime example of the kind of one-stop, comprehensive service portal and support the Veterans Initiative is working to build, Ferguson said.

Veterans can go to the service organizations at Tierney Center for basic transition support, referrals, and help with employment or legal issues. They get connected to the Battle Buddy Bridge program that matches them with another veteran who is further along in the transition to civilian life.

Veterans and family members also can get plugged into the Tierney Center through the 2-1-1 Orange County social services referral agency, and their intake information is entered into a “Warrior Serve” database maintained by Goodwill, Ferguson said.

“They can tell their story once. And then that’s shared with other service organizations.”

Getting word out

But Hixson’s personal experience — though positive — also reflects the work that still needs to be done to make veterans more aware of the community programs and service organizations that can help.

He learned of Warrior Scholar-Project in a roundabout way. His girlfriend’s mother mentioned Hixson to a former high school classmate — now a four-star general. The military classmate told her about the  nationwide mentoring program called Service to School, and from his mentor with that program Hixson learned of Warrior-Scholar Project.

Veterans, he said, need more direct connection.

“It’s almost like, ‘Hey take my hand and I’m going to show you how to do it.’ Sometimes, that’s what it takes with veterans.”

Source: Orange County Register

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