Veteran and former Pasadena City College student Efren “Ren” Celestino took his own life last week at 31 years old, emphasizing the nation’s epidemic of veteran mental illness and suicide.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day in 2014, the last year data was available. In 2014, U.S. civilian adults committed suicide at a rate of 15.2 per 100,000 while veterans committed suicide at a rate of 35.3 per 100,000.
There are many factors that make veterans’ transition from military to civilian life challenging, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, financial hardship, medical troubles, lack of mental health care, and a loss of identity.
“A big thing for me was lack of purpose,” said 27-year-old Jordan Orme, a Pasadena City College student who served 8 years in the Marine Corps after graduating high school. “I felt like in the Marine Corps, I had a purpose, I had meaning. Going to Afghanistan multiple times, it gave me a reason for what I was doing. Versus being a civilian, you kind of just try to get by.”
The highly structured lifestyle of the military allows many young adults to experience significant amounts of responsibility and respect. Once they have exited, it can be difficult when they are now seen to those around them in a different light.
“If you can imagine yourself, you’re part of a greater organization where a lot of them are in charge of other people, they’re in charge of millions of dollars of equipment, they have the responsibility to lead,” said Patricia D’Orange Martin, coordinator of Pasadena City College’s Veterans Resource Center. “And then, all of a sudden, they come back to civilian life and they’re… just a student.”
“For women, it’s also particularly difficult…If you’re in charge of something, you have that feeling of leadership and empowerment. And then, they get out of the military and they’re just a student. So, they don’t get the respect that they once had in the military for their ability and their knowledge. They get dissed because they’re just a female.”
Additionally, many veterans report difficulty obtaining work once they exit the military. They need to attain a steady income, but prospective employers do not always see the merits of military experience. Many of the jobs that veterans worked in the military may not directly relate to fields they are applying to.
“You cannot relate our experience to the workforce,” said 26-year-old Pasadena City College student Gary Lam, who served 4 years in the Marine Corps before leaving to help with his family’s financial struggles. “I had a huge responsibility dealing with bombs but who the hell deals with bombs here? No one’s gonna hire me. No one understands the leadership skills that we developed over time. All people care about is a piece of paper and work experience.”
“It goes from a structured lifestyle [where] you don’t have to worry about anything except doing your job, to I’ve got to make sure I have a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and food in my stomach,” Orme said.
Job searches and other attempts to transition back to regular civilian life are not aided by the mental difficulties many combat veterans experience after going through such traumatic situations. Their suffering is worsened by the fact that they usually do not have many around them who can relate to and understand their struggles. During service, they found a support system and camaraderie among their fellow military brothers and sisters, but now they are separated and spread out across the country.
“I came back from multiple tours of Afghanistan and I couldn’t even relate to my family half the time,” Orme said. “I’d just sit on the couch and stare at them.”
Younger veterans are not alone in facing these struggles. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that veterans aged 50 years or older accounted for approximately 65% of veteran suicides in 2014.
“There’s still people from Vietnam and they’re going through the same struggle I’m going through but they’ve been doing it since Vietnam,” said Lam.
This ongoing crisis raises questions of whether the U.S. as a nation is doing enough to ensure the wellbeing of our veterans after service.
“They put more money into us getting trained and equipment and all that, but they don’t really put enough money into getting us transitioned well,” Lam said.
“I lost a brother two weeks ago to suicide and I served two tours with him,” Orme said. “I think the nation does do what it can, but it’s really hard to grasp somebody who’s in such a dark place. Especially, a lot of veterans who come back from war, they can’t really comprehend their own struggle or their own pain. So, it’s hard to ask for help with something you don’t really understand yourself.”
In order to serve Pasadena City College’s veteran population, the Veterans Resource Center in W-108 provides many resources, including academic and mental health counseling, free tutoring, career information, and support programs. The VRC also partners with the Veterans Affairs East Los Angeles Vet Centers and the US Vets Outside the Wire program to provide additional mental health counseling. There is also a very active Veterans Club that acts as a supportive community for students.
“This is actually one of the best schools for veteran resources,” said Lam. “We have a good resource center for us to transition. Before I went here, I went to another at a different college and it was just like a little closet for us and that’s it. Just one counselor and a couple of computers.”
To specifically prevent and educate on the issue of veteran suicide, the Veterans Resource Center holds suicide prevention workshops several times a year where they educate any faculty, staff, and students who wish to attend.
The Veterans Resource Center’s next suicide prevention workshop will be held November 3rd.