Lidia served in the United States Navy from 1998 to 2006. She entered right out of high school. Upon receiving her honorable discharge, Lidia came home and attended and graduated college.
Her story might sound like an American dream if you gloss over the finer details, like the fact that she was on the USS Cole in Yemen the day it was attacked by al-Qaeda and watched 17 of her fellow soldiers die. Or that after watching the 9/11 attacks live on TV, all communication was cut between her outpost and her home country. Or even the fact that she was deployed to Iraq and tasked with picking human bodies out of the water.
There’s no doubt about it: Lidia experienced severe trauma overseas, but she never talked about what happened.
“When I got out, I thought I was a macho mouse and could handle anything,” she said.
Lidia’s story is incredibly familiar and one that’s worth examining when considering how active duty affects a veteran’s ability to positively transition back into civilian life.
Pew Research Center sought to identify the probabilities of positive re-entry in its 2011 report titled “The Difficult Transition from Military to Civilian Life.” After surveying 1,853 veterans, they found that “veterans who say they had an emotionally traumatic experience while serving or had suffered a serious service-related injury were significantly more likely to report problems with re-entry.” And what’s more, the probability that a veteran will have an easy time re-entering society drops to 56% for those who reported experiencing a traumatic event.
There are also variety of other factors that can affect a veteran’s ability to easily re-enter. For example, being a college graduate and/or having a higher level of religious beliefs can dramatically increase those odds, while being married, being seriously injured, or simply being a post-9/11 veteran can also make it much harder.
A big problem is how those experiences are addressed and processed upon re-entry. If not handled correctly, it can cause a host of problems for returning veterans including but not limited to mental health issues, addiction, homelessness, and poverty.
That’s exactly what happened to Lidia. After graduating college, she got a great job offer at a restaurant in Los Angeles but when she arrived, she found out the executive chef had been fired and her employment opportunity was gone. Then she learned the apartment she was ready to lease was rented out from under her.
She had nowhere to sleep so she went to a shelter.
“I was sleeping on a cot and I was just thinking that I’d just went from a queen size bed to a cot. I really thought having gone to school, I wouldn’t face homelessness.”
And she’s not the only one. According to the 2018 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, 3,886 veterans are homeless in L.A. County. Of those, only 1,074 live in shelters.
Once you become homeless, it’s much harder to become housed again. Someone who has a home but no job still has a bed to sleep in, shower to clean themselves, and somewhere to clean the clothes they need for job interviews. Homeless individuals aren’t just facing the stress of finding a safe place to sleep, they’re searching for food, money, showers, and even health care — all while trying to keep track of their personal identification, which is necessary when applying for housing.
Try staying positive during that experience.
“Homelessness introduced me to depression,” explained Lidia. “I still had the mentality that I’m victorious and I can overcome this. If I can be on a ship with 5,000 people and carry on life as it is, get out, graduate college, get a great job, and move to California then I can do anything. But I could not get out of Skid Row.”
Lidia did eventually get out of Skid Row but for every story like hers, there are thousands of veterans still living on the streets or in poverty. That’s why programs for returning veterans are crucial. When you give to United Way of Greater Los Angeles, you’re giving to the programs that will help bring our veterans home and help them gain the financial freedom needed to thrive on their own.
To find out how you can do your part, visit UnitedWayLA.org.