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Coming home: Veterans share the truth about transitioning to civilian life

For some veterans, returning to “normal” life is complicated and painful—this nonprofit is on a mission to help.

Cinthya Fana, whose service included nine months in Afghanistan and a year in Korea

When Cinthya Fana left the Army in 2015, she wanted to reenlist almost immediately. 

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“When you are in the military, even though things are not perfect, you have this sense of togetherness and purpose in life,” explains Fana, whose service included nine months in Afghanistan and a year in Korea.  “Then all of a sudden, that goes away, and it is like you lose a part of yourself that you didn’t know you needed.” 

Zak Garcia joined the Army soon after 9/11. He served two tours in the middle east, including deployments to Kuwait and Iraq. When he returned home in 2007, he was “super relieved at first.” But he quickly realized his friends had changed and so had he. 

“People would want me to tell stories. They would ask me inappropriate questions,” Garcia remembers. “One of the hardest things to deal with was opening up about some trauma I experienced only to have the person talking to me lose interest.”

Air Force veteran Victor Bohm says his transition to civilian life was difficult—but not unlike most veterans’ experience.

“When I got out, there really wasn’t a whole lot of support out there for me. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) gave me a lot of information but nothing I understood,” says Bohm, who is now director of digital engagement at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a nonprofit veterans organization committed to improving the lives of post-9/11 veterans.

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Zak Garcia, who served two tours in the middle east

A fractured system of care 

Returning to “normal” life isn’t just emotionally trying. It also begets practical challenges.

Victor Bohm, Air Force veteran and director of digital engagement at IAVA

“A lot of things civilians deal with are taken care of by the military when you serve,” Bohm says. “When you get out, you are hit with a lot of unrecognizable responsibilities. You have to find a place to live, find a job, pay your rent, pay your bills all at once.”

Veterans shouldn’t have to navigate civilian life alone. More than 40,000 veteran service organizations exist along with thousands upon thousands of other resources—it is finding the right programs and resources to fit individual needs that is challenging. IAVA describes this as a “fractured system of care,” explains Hannah Sinoway, executive vice president of organization strategy and engagement at IAVA.  

To help veterans find local resources—and to consolidate and connect the fractured system—IAVA created Quick Reaction Force (QRF). Veterans and their families can call 855-91RAPID, day or night, to speak to a veteran about what they are going through. Since its launch in December 2012, QRF has grown into a national network, equipped to connect people like Bohm, Garcia, and Fana, to the support they need and deserve. 

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“QRF is designed to be their lifeline, that safety net, so when veterans come home after serving, they have someone standing beside them to guide them,” says Sinoway.

Consolidating veteran care 

Sean Ullman, IAVA COO

QRF has helped over 10,000 veterans and family members. It works with veterans of all generations, including post 9/11 veterans, who account for about 4 million of the nearly 20 million veterans in the U.S. This group differs from other generations of veterans in a number of ways: They enlisted voluntarily; they are digitally savvy and politically diverse; and they are staying in the armed forces longer than older veterans, which can make the transition home even harder, explains IAVA COO Sean Ullman.

Ullman notes that post 9/11 veterans are at a higher risk for employment, housing, and mental health issues than civilians. It doesn’t help that there’s a “stigma in the civilian world around service and the long-term impact of service,” he explains. The reality is this is a diverse group of people that cannot be easily summarized. Understanding the nuances of this population, as well as individuals’ needs, is what makes QRF successful.

IAVA data shows that veterans tend not to reach out until the situation is dire. QRF aims to address the immediate concern, as well as the underlying issues. For example, veterans have called QRF because they have just lost their house. QRF intervenes immediately to help the veteran secure housing. Then they address the root causes of the eviction, which might mean providing counseling or help finding a job. 

Part of the reason people wait to reach out is because it is hard to ask for help, especially if you have been trained in the military. 

“Military culture holds a stigma around asking for help. ‘Suck it up, and drive on!’ is one of the most common phrases,” says Garcia.

When he returned home, he started to have panic attacks and turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. “It is hard to ask for help, especially when you know that you are going to have to confront the trauma that you have been trying to avoid because just talking about it is so incredibly painful and scary.”

Garcia, now CMO of CBDCapitalGroup

Garcia sought treatment, and today, he is CMO of CBDCapitalGroup, an investment and operating company that invests in small businesses. He is proud of his service, and he speaks openly about his experiences to help others. 

Fana can relate. She pursued her master’s after serving, but almost dropped out to reenlist. “When you get out of your military, you think you have everything figured out. You think, ‘I don’t need help—that is for people who can’t do it on their own,’” she says. 

At her school advisor’s urging, she stayed and pursued a role with IAVA. Today, she is IAVA’s director of organization development and credits the organization for giving her a home. “I went from extreme depression to having a family,” she says.

Supporting the families that shoulder the burden

Garcia believes veterans’ families don’t get enough credit for the burden they shoulder. “It is hard to be in a relationship with a combat veteran. My wife has to deal with my nightmares often,” he notes.

QRF helps veteran families, too. Sinoway explains families are often filled with pride when a loved one serves, but they are not always prepared if it is a tough transition home. She recalls one parent who called in for advice: “They had been excited for months for their kid to come home, but when they moved back in, things started to unravel quickly. They didn’t know how to talk to this person, who had become almost like a stranger living in their house.” QRF worked with the family for almost a year, providing education and communication tools.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common scenario, notes Ullman. He urges families, as well as civilians, to realize transitions are difficult, to be open-minded and thoughtful, and to not make assumptions.

For veterans, Ullman’s message is that there is no stigma or shame in reaching out for assistance. 

Garcia agrees. “I think what the women and men who have served this country want most is a path—and the support—to be able to manage their own life without feeling like an outsider.” 

If you are a veteran or family member in need of help, Quick Reaction Force has your back. Call 855-91RAPID for immediate and confidential support, from someone who can understand what you are going through. 

To learn more about IAVA and QRF, or to make a donation, visit www.quickreactionforce.org

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's BG BrandLab and paid for by the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.

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