California Veterans Care Effort Must Go National

July 31, 2009
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stars and Stripes

Over the next two years, more than 1.5 million men and women in our military will return from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. As those increasing numbers of troops come home, our nation must ask: Are we prepared to help our veterans transition back into civilian life?

Returning from a battlefield overseas is not a simple change, because while our troops may leave the war, the effects of war do not leave them. And it’s not just the soldier, but the soldier’s family, co-workers and community who confront the remainders of war. The effects can be devastating. Some 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. An estimated 40 percent of all homeless men are veterans. Last year, more of our Army veterans died committing suicide after returning home than were killed in combat.

In California, we’re doing something simple but powerful for our veterans and their families. Through an extraordinary collaboration between our mental health and military communities, we have launched a program that links together all the various resources for veterans and created a one-stop shop for the people and families suffering from the effects of war. We call it the Network of Care.

You see, there are an impressive number of different programs and resources for the returning soldier, but they are often hard to find or are completely invisible to the veteran in need. This is, in part, because of a separation that exists among the multiple agencies involved. There is the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, nongovernment national resources, state services, county services and local community-based programs — but all them exist within different bureaucracies, making it extremely hard for the average person to even know what resources exist.

In California, as well as in Maryland, we built Networks of Care in every local community, using the Internet to bring virtually every service — public and private, federal and local — right to the fingertips of our veterans. It’s all on our Web site, www.cavets.networkofcare.org, where we take special efforts to make it known exactly where emergency crisis services are in each community, how to find shelter, how to hook up with jobs that are dedicated to veterans, and how to seek the personal assistance of the local veterans service officer. The continuously updated information on the site is not just about services, it also includes a knowledge bank on medical conditions, medications and treatments, as well as social networking, news and events, and more. It’s a place where veterans can seek help and information, but also where their voices can be heard.

Like the voice of Chris Raschke, a veteran of the war in Iraq from San Rafael, Calif., who felt isolated and lost after returning home, but didn’t want to admit to a traditional counselor that he was having problems. Instead, he turned to social networking online.

And there are nonprofits like Give an Hour, based in Bethesda, Md., which is using the Network of Care site in that state to build a system of volunteers who are capable of responding to the chronic mental health needs of our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

Already through the Network of Care in California, we are finding innovative ways to help veterans. Tom Splitgerber in San Diego, for example, is helping veterans store their medical records on a secure Web site at no cost so that they will always have easy access to those valuable documents — no matter whether they move, change doctors, or misplace their files.

This is just the beginning. Our goal is to use this platform as a backbone for far more aggressive and creative efforts to reach out to our veterans and help them transition back to civilian life.

I am proud to say that California is leading the way in preparing for our veterans to return home from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a model that must be replicated nationally. I urge every state to develop a Network of Care for its returning veterans, and for the federal government to help facilitate what should become a national network to ensure no veteran ever lacks the services and assistance he or she needs.

Our military veterans have put their lives on the line to serve this country, to keep our communities safe, and to defend the ideals that have built our country and kept it strong. Ensuring these men and women have the tools and helping hands to transition back to rewarding lives at home is the least that we can do, and we must.