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Veterans Face Uphill Battle Coping with the Pandemic

Young woman soldier with her baby son after a long time

Imagine returning from a mission in Afghanistan in which you were part of a highly trained and focused unit. You might have seen your fellow service members killed or wounded. You might have faced the stress of sudden attacks. You might not have had time to process all you experienced.

Now you return home in the midst of a pandemic. Maybe your children have had their own challenges with remote schooling. Your spouse might have lost a job or be sick with COVID-19. Or you could be single, dealing with the added isolation of COVID-19 lockdowns and precautions. Either way, the organizations that would help you transition back to civilian life — maybe find housing, a job, and behavioral health resources — have limited hours and long wait lists.

This is a reality for veterans returning home during the pandemic.

The pandemic put a serious strain on many of Pennsylvania’s 746,000 veterans, who make up 7.3 percent of the state’s population. A 2020 survey, conducted by the Wounded Warrior Project, found that:

  • 54 percent of post-9/11 veterans currently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • 34 percent suffer from severe or moderately severe depression.
  • 30 percent reported having suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks.
  • More than half (52 percent) reported that their mental health had worsened since social distancing.

The survey also found that the pandemic had made mental health care less accessible, with 51 percent reporting that they had had an appointment canceled or postponed.

Veterans’ Struggles Locally

Here in our area, the Veterans Treatment Courts — which assist vets charged with non-violent crimes who are struggling with addiction, mental illness, or co-occurring disorders — was closed for in-person activities for 18 months of the pandemic. This made it difficult to schedule psychologist appointments or access a support system where veterans could talk to one another.

As a result of untreated mental illness, these individuals experienced increased alcohol and substance use, homelessness, and domestic violence, according to Myra Fields-Rouse, Veteran Initiatives Supervisor for the City of Philadelphia (and herself an Army veteran). “The pandemic has pushed a lot of people over the edge,” Fields-Rouse said.

Many of these vets bear the psychological scars of posttraumatic stress as well as military sexual trauma, Fields-Rouse added, because both women and men have suffered assaults and kept it bottled up. In addition, nine out of ten veterans report having chronic pain, which can also impact mental health.

“In the military, they’re good at saving your life; but patching you up happens stateside,” Fields-Rouse commented. Now that Veterans Treatment Courts are open, she is able to make more referrals for community support, and she is hopeful there will be more success stories, as there were in the past.

“I have one veteran who was a retired police officer,” Fields-Rouse recounted. “He was very quiet and dealing with depression. Coming to vet court helps him come out and talk to other vets. He used the program to work on his issues. I referred him for yoga and it worked for him. The court has asked him to be a mentor. Nobody understands a veteran like another veteran.”

A Vulnerable Adjustment Period

The transition from military to civilian life is a highly vulnerable time, and the pandemic has made it even more challenging, says Dr. H. Jean Wright II, Director of the Behavioral Health and Justice Division and Deputy Commissioner for Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS).

During the pandemic, we’ve had restrictions, misinformation, and changing guidelines, which is particularly disorienting for veterans. They’ve come from a highly structured environment to a setting where there are a lot of unknowns,” Wright says.

“It’s not the same country as it was when you left, and opportunities might not be the same. Especially for men and women who are not able to support themselves or their families, it really is a struggle. In addition, whatever social opportunities used to be readily available might not be available now. So, there might be a lot of isolation, especially for veterans feeling like they’re the only ones going through what they’re going through.”

How to Give and Receive Help

We can all do our part to support veterans, Wright says. If you’re a business owner, make it known that you want to hire veterans. Create opportunities for employment and post signs that “we hire veterans.”

In 2013, Independence Blue Cross (Independence) employees launched IVets, an associate resource group for veterans. IVets has helped the company recruit and retain veterans, while offering current veteran associates a forum for networking, camaraderie, and service. Associate resource groups are part of Independence’s commitment to having its workforce and policies reflect the diverse character of the communities it serves. They also provide opportunities for growth and for building a culture of inclusion.

Simply reaching out when you see a veteran goes a long way too. “Thank them for their service,” Wright suggests. “You can’t imagine what that does for a person. Just that smile or ‘thank you’ is huge, especially for a veteran feeling isolated, like no one understands or cares.”

For those in need of support, DBHIDS has a comprehensive list of services for service members, veterans, and their families at philadelphia.pa.networkofcare.org/veterans/services/.

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