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New study uncovers evolving needs of veterans throughout Southern California

  • MVP
  • Research

A new regional study led by the Military and Veterans Programs (MVP) at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work indicates an evolution in the needs of veterans throughout Southern California as they transition from active duty.

Sara Kintzle, associate research professor at USC Social Work and principal investigator on the study, says the data suggests a significant lack of emotional preparedness for transition out of the military, in addition to the logistical preparation of resume development, job interview skills and securing housing.

“Over and over we heard veterans say they felt like they had to start over and they weren’t prepared for that,” Kintzle said. “We need to prepare service members to understand there will be times they wonder if they made a mistake in leaving the military, or that there will be rejection in trying to find a job and it may take time. They need to know these feelings are normal, and we need to prepare them for these emotional challenges.”

The State of the American Veteran: The Southern California Veterans Study is the first to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment across Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties, surveying nearly 3,200 veterans, and the first study funded through the new RAND-USC Epstein Family Foundation Center for Veterans Policy Research, as well as by UniHealth Foundation, Cedars-Sinai, SoCal Grantmakers and the Epstein Foundation. 

The study was conducted using both in-person and online surveys to examine the veteran experience holistically, including factors unique to their transition out of the military, their overall well-being, physical and mental health, relationships and connectedness, and any experiences during active duty that continue to impact them today. Participants were also asked about their access to care, their perceptions about the quality of care available to them in their local communities and any additional needs they felt were not being met.

“Having this new data will help local agencies and veterans’ organizations better understand the complex issues facing veterans today in order to meet them where they are, both in Southern California and across the country,” said Carl Castro, director of MVP and the RAND-USC Epstein Family Foundation Center for Veterans Policy Research.

The results published in The Southern California Veterans Study demonstrate multiple critical challenges that continue for veterans across the region, most notably housing, employment, physical health, mental health and substance use. It also highlights new areas of examination, including loneliness among veterans, issues particular to women veterans and the surprising number of veterans facing food insecurity.

“With the combination of RAND and USC we’ve been given not just ordinary capabilities, but exceptional capabilities,” said USC Trustee and ConAm Group Founder Dan Epstein, whose foundation funded the RAND-USC Epstein Center. “That was an underlying impetus to the whole relationship. I look for situations where one plus one can equal three. In this case, we're equaling four.”

Focus needed on culture and identity issues

One of the more substantial barriers to seeking help that the new study emphasizes is a general attitude among veterans that they can, and prefer, to handle their challenges on their own. Self-reliance and a reluctance to admit what may be perceived as weakness are ingrained into the military culture, and convincing veterans to ask for help remains very difficult.

“Shifting the military culture and mindset is one of the hard problems that we're still working to solve,” Kintzle said. “There are some problems that most people, military or civilian, are not equipped to handle on their own and a perception of weakness should not be associated with that.”

Another example Castro notes, as co-investigator on the study, is the assumption that veteran suicide rates are solely driven by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the impact of combat service. But the data also points to identity crises during stressful transition periods, such as joining the military or when returning to civilian life, similar to the dynamics of suicide ideation among civilian populations.

“Military service is hard and transitioning from the military comes with a lot of challenges,” Kintzle said. “Our job is not to characterize an entire population, but to focus on the strengths and the challenges that we are seeing in the population and how we can use our greater understanding to address them.”

Studies increase collaboration, funding

Building on the previous series of State of the American Veteran studies conducted by MVP in Los Angeles, Orange County, Chicago and San Francisco, the new study aimed to identify vicissitudes among the veteran populations in Los Angeles and Orange Counties over the past five years in combination with surveying veterans in San Diego County for the first time. Data from the first four regional studies resulted in millions of dollars in additional funding for veteran services, and also inspired more coordinated, collaborative approaches by community organizations that support veterans.

“These counties now have collaborative systems that are working really well and a group of people who are so dedicated to this population,” Kintzle said. “When you put data like this in their hands in a way that they can really utilize, it can create exponential impact for veterans.”

According to James Zenner, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, studies like these provide direct access to information that underscores the barriers for veterans and their families to obtain benefits, employment or housing.

“It's invaluable insight that we can use right away to create proper interventions to address the issues highlighted,” Zenner said.

The Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative (LAVC) saw tremendous impact from the prior study conducted in 2014 and already has plans to put the findings from the new study into action.

“We intend to leverage the data stemming from the Southern California Veterans Study in a multifaceted manner,” said Aimee Pila-Bravo, MSW ‘18, director of LAVC. “It will serve as a pivotal resource to enhance existing programs while also unveiling a variety of prospective initiatives to directly address the concerns identified within the study.”

Jeff Pagano, program manager of the Orange County Veterans & Military Families Collaborative, attributes more than $5 million in funding received by veteran-serving nonprofits from the prior Orange County study due to a better identification and understanding of the “demand signal.”

“Previously, many service providers believed that there was a finite amount of funding available,” Pagano said. “But when we all started collaborating, it actually increased the amount of available funding and the willingness of donors to fund. The 2015 USC study was a key reason for this shift. It allowed us to start creating a vision and an ideal end state for serving our veterans and their families in real ways, and that is through effective and well-developed public and private partnerships.”

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