Many veterans students on campus went from being part of a coherent group of people with one common goal—the military—to collegiate life where each student pursues his or her own individual objectives.
During Veterans Day’s week, PCC held a ceremony to honor veterans at the Memorial Wall on campus and after listening to veterans speeches it was clear that in order to succeed in their new environment, veterans must quickly learn new skills, change lifestyle, and undo their military mindset.
Together with caseworker Carol Calandra, D’Orange runs the VRC helping veterans reintegrate into civilian society.
“You know, they take a lot of time creating a soldier, or sailor or marine or airman,” D’Orange said. “But they don’t take any time to deprogram them and that is what we have been doing here.”
At the Memorial Wall ceremony students and faculty listened to combat veteran Gary Lam tell his story.
He served four years in the Marine Corps and completed two deployments to Afghanistan clearing the way from improvised explosive devices. Now he’s the Veterans Club’s second vice president.
“Being a veteran for the most part feels great,” Lam said. But it also means being stressed above average. Returning from deployment he felt disconnected from the rest of the students.
“My friends and family avoided me because I came home a different person,” he said.
He described what it means to live with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For him it’s hard to sleep, to concentrate, to memorize things. “And the list goes on,” he said.
“I became an alcoholic because I used it to sleep,” Lam said. “However that led me to become more violent and angry person. But fortunately I went and got help before it was too late.”
He went to the VA hospital, but it didn’t help much. He said it wasn’t because they weren’t efficient, but because the Los Angeles area only has three VA hospitals for 380,000 veterans who need medical care. An effort to start a VA clinic on PCC’s campus recently failed due to a lack of agreement between the campus and the VA administrations.
For Lam, the VRC is important. “It has helped me from my social isolation and comforts me every time I come to school,” he said.
D’Orange is the niece, the daughter, the wife and the mother of a veteran. She has been a counselor for 30 years and works at the VRC since its opening in 2010. She offers a tip for students that haven’t been in the military.
“Civilians just need to be compassionate,” she said. Veterans might not be “as friendly as the students think they should be … They were taught to be on on guard and it takes a while for some of them to transition and open up again.”
Psychology professor and Vietnam veteran Harold Martin is known to PCC veterans as “Doc.” He started working at the Veterans Club 10 years ago as an adviser.
He now teaches classes specifically designed for combat veterans that need help “becoming civilians again,” as Martin said last Thursday during the annual SOS Veterans Celebration Breakfast at the Creveling Lounge.
These classes, four in all, are called “Boots to Books” and students earn up to 12 units by participating in them.
“I didn’t want them to experience what I experienced,” Martin said. He felt unsupported returning from the Vietnam War.
Once at college, he didn’t even dare telling people he was a veteran, not wanting to deal with the antagonism and the misunderstanding of that war.
“We know that the number one reason why they don’t make it is if they don’t have social support,” he continued.
Dan Standage, director of disability services at Student Veterans of America (SVA), expressed a similar concern.
“Anybody can do the academic,” he said in an interview with American RadioWorks. “The harder part is figuring out your place in that campus and learning how to be a good student.”
The VRC has also partnered with U.S. Vets, a nonprofit provider of services to homeless and at-risk veterans. They send to PCC a mental health counselor to meet with veterans on campus. And the East Los Angeles Vet Center sends to PCC a health counselor and a transition specialist.
There are also more practical things veterans need. Like money.
Veterans who were on active duty on or after Sept. 11 have their four years of public higher education paid by the federal government thanks to the GI Bill, and the PCC has an annual budget of $250,000 for the about 800 veterans on campus. But sometimes it’s not enough.
“They have families,” D’Orange said. “And those who do get benefits it’s really not much.”
The VRC offers food cards, gas cards and helps veterans with housing. According to D’Orange, around 15 percent of PCC veterans are homeless – which means that 120 veteran students don’t have a steady place to stay.
Joseph Amador, president of the Veterans Club, continues raising awareness about his club. He respects those veterans that don’t want to show up and be part of it, but when he can he approaches them.
“I can spot them by their looks,” Amador said. According to him they usually have tattoos and short hair. They keep their fists clenched as if they were marching, and when standing still their feet are kept with heels together as in a military posture.
But as soon as a stereotype is created, it’s debunked.
Jiselle Ashook, who joined the army right after high school doing seven years in the Navy, said the biggest misconception about veterans is what they should look like.
“People never think I would be a veteran because of how I look, because I’m a woman and maybe because I’m petite,” Ashook said. “But I’m a veteran.”
The VRC continues to grow. In these days there are from 50 to 70 people who visit the VRC more or less regularly and the space hosting the VRC—located in room W108—will triple its size, going from 800 to roughly 3,000 square feet, by the spring.