Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Must Read for American Veterans of War(s)

As we reflect on deaths and war this weekend, take time to pass this on to a veteran you know.–KASNOTE: I have never served and think many shouldn’t, but like most Americans, I have many veterans in my family. Pray for them this Easter holiday.

With Vietnam Vets The Beat Goes On

By Steve Lopez

Los Angeles Times

More than 40 years ago, while the Vietnam War was raging, the Los Angeles son of a world-famous critic of the war got a draft notice. Steve Peck managed to get a temporary deferment because he was in college. But after graduation, it was time to report to the Marines for duty.

Peck’s mother told Steve she could probably arrange for him to skip out and stay with family in Sweden, but he wasn’t very politically aware and wasn’t opposed to serving. “I certainly didn’t want to use my father,” said Peck, even if his famous Oscar-winning dad might have been able to get him out of military service.

So Stephen Peck, the son of actor Gregory, went to Vietnam in 1969 with the 1st Marine Division. Lt. Peck completed his tour in 1970, went to film school at USC and became a documentary filmmaker. Not until 1990, though, did he realize what he wanted to do with his life.

That was the year Peck made two films about war and its aftermath, and on the speaking tours to veterans groups that followed, he realized he was talking to the kind of people he wanted to work for. So for the last 20 years, Peck has devoted himself to helping vets transition to civilian life.

“In the film business you have to sell yourself, and I wasn’t very good at that. I’m good at helping other people,” said Peck, who in August became president of U.S. VETS, an L.A.-based nonprofit that serves 2,500 vets a day in nine states, with a big focus on rescuing homeless vets from the streets.

I went to see Peck last week in Long Beach, where 545 formerly homeless vets live and get job training, addiction treatment and other services from U.S. VETS. Peck said the demand for services nationwide is bound to grow dramatically, given thousands of multiple deployments to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and there’s no way the Department of Veterans Affairs will be able to answer the need.

That’s unacceptable, if you ask me, but it gets worse. ProPublica and NPR reported recently that the military is refusing to diagnose and treat traumatic brain injury because of the high cost of treatment.

It would be nice if those who led the charge to war were as militant about treating injured soldiers as they were about delivering tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans. But Washington is crawling with cowards and hypocrites, which makes the work of nonprofits like U.S. VETS all the more important.

Peck says an estimated 20% of all vets will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, but only 40% of those afflicted will seek help. Crunch those numbers, and it means roughly 250,000 vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan will go untreated. And that will translate into thousands of fractured families, lost jobs and more homelessness.

So Peck and his staff have come up with a new program to help stem the tide. Beginning in January, they’ll be going to college campuses and into the streets in search of vets who need help but either don’t know it or don’t know where to turn. U.S. VETS is building a network of contacts on local college campuses, where several thousand vets in Greater L.A. are taking advantage of the new G.I. bill.

U.S. VETS will use outreach workers and a clinical psychologist and make use of its partnership with the Long Beach VA Medical Center’s medical and psychiatric teams. Adam Renteria, one of the outreach workers, is the perfect example of whom U.S. VETS wants to go after. Renteria survived the invasion of Baghdad in 2003 but came home shell-shocked.

“Nobody will hire a vet because of that stare in their eye,” said Renteria, who had it so bad, he couldn’t hold minimum-wage jobs. He thought the enemy might be up there behind the windows of tall buildings or on rooftops, and he flinched at the sound of a car’s backfire.

“I couldn’t handle it. I went stir crazy for about three years trying to figure out where I was. I had sleepless nights, the shakes, the whole bit,” said Renteria, who ended up living in his car.

Like a lot of vets, he figured he could handle his problems on his own.

“You don’t know you need help, you don’t know where to turn for help and there’s that stigma” associated with mental disorders, said Renteria. Not to mention a prevalent feeling among vets that the VA will tangle you in red tape and dispute war-related stress.

Renteria had another reason for not seeking help.

“I saw quite a few of my buddies get injured, get blown up, and you always figure they need the services most. You don’t want to take away any part of that pie because it takes away from them.”

As a student at Cal State Long Beach, Renteria helped establish a veterans club on campus, got a degree in history in May and was hired by U.S. VETS in August.

“This is the perfect marriage,” he said. “To help my battle buddies come home. And it’s therapy for me too.”

Peck said that when he returned from Vietnam, there was no diagnosis called post-traumatic stress disorder. If you were a loner or acted out, you were just a crazy vet.

Making those documentaries about war was probably his own form of therapy, Peck said, and it got him back to where he needed to be.

If you’d like to know more about his program, go to

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 6th, 2011 at 10:59 pm and is filed under Veterans Benefits. Tags for this post: Vietnam veterans/ Homeless Veterans/Homelessness. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Many thanks to Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times, CalVets and my Army pal Bill Howard for forwarding this story. It needs to be read by the very wide audience of veterans. At times this blog is but a hitching post for information that wants to come to town. I am sure the authors appreciate the accolades.

At Veteran Veritas we are, “E Pluribus Unum.”–Mike Brewer



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