Fight not over for Placer’s returning veterans

Help available for emotional, educational and financial challenges
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - When Justin Johnson returned to civilian life after serving in the U.S. Army, he admits that things started to fall apart swiftly and too easily. Johnson was honorably discharged after more than eight years. His service included 17 months in Iraq. First, there were ongoing problems with post-traumatic stress disorder. Then there was the pain his family felt when ex-wife died. What followed was too much drinking and too many suicidal thoughts. Johnson, 35, was able to lift himself out of his own downward spiral with the aid of the non-profit Forgotten Soldier Program in Auburn. It’s one of several efforts in the Placer County area dealing with returning veterans’ move back into the civilian mainstream. With the help of a variety of therapies, including Japanese stress-reduction technique reiki, acupuncture and counseling, the former Army sergeant was able to work through many of his problems. Now he helps others as an administrator of the Forgotten Soldier program, with his salary paid by the Veterans Administration. “They stopped me from being my own worst enemy and gave me more tools in my toolbox,” Johnson said. Donna Arz, of Forgotten Soldier, said that over four years, the program has seen 1,000 returning veterans, helping them to deal with issues in their lives. “It’s a calling,” Arz said. “I cannot not do it. It’s what I’m supposed to do.” As veterans return, they will be coming home experiencing depression and substance abuse problems that will need to be worked through, Johnson said. “What we find is that when flight or fight kicks in, they don’t want to fight so it’s natural to want to just go away,” Johnson said. “That means losing connection with family and your neighbors.” Johnson said the Forgotten Soldier programs have helped him and should provide crucial assistance at a key time for many more veterans coming home. “There’s about to be an onslaught of veterans coming out of active duty and they’re going to need these programs to help soften the blow,” Johnson said. College reaches out At Sierra College in Rocklin, a counselor and former Marine Catherine Morris, heads a veterans program that sees the trials and tribulations of 800 veterans enrolled at the school. “We see the struggles every day,” Morris said. “Seventy to 75 percent have served in combat and you don’t serve in combat without obstacles to get through.” Services include a specialized class called Boots to Books every fall to ease the transition from the military to higher education. With the post-9-11 G.I. bill in place, veterans can get their tuition paid, a stipend for books and $1,749 a month to help with living expenses. “We also try to help them if they’re eligible for financial aid,” Morris said. “Most haven’t been to college before and it can be very daunting.” Morris and others who work with her will also sit down with veterans for one-on-one interviews to ask questions on whether they have a support system, how they’re combating stress and what injuries they may be suffering from. “We want to know if they have a game plan,” Morris said. “And many admit they do not.” Jay Blake, a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps, served in Iraq in 2008 and was honorably discharged in July 2010. He now is enrolled at Sierra College and working toward an associate’s degree in recreational management. “It’s definitely a really good program,” Blake said. “In other schools people have to be the squeaking wheel and actually complain. Here, they’re pro-active.” Programs can be unique Placer County residents and groups are stepping up in unique ways to help our nation’s veterans. On the Middle Fork of the American River near Foresthill one recent weekend, several veterans were learning the art of fly fishing through the Horseshoe Bar Fish and Game Preserve’s Wounded Warrior program. Tom Bartos, president and founder of the preserve and the event, said the event brings together veterans for not only recreation but a chance to connect with others in a relaxing setting. “Some have a psychologically difficult time coming back,” Bartos said. “Perhaps the best experience for them is just sitting around the campfire at night communicating with older veterans and other people.” Veterans often open up, talking about not being the same guy they were before going to war, how their wives have grown distant or left them, or how alone they feel, Bartos said. For Bartos, the event – which is now in its third year – is “incredibly humbling.” “It’s embarrassing for me when they come up and thank me,” Bartos said. “I’m doing nothing compared to what these guys did. I’m not even in the same game.” Honoring our heroes The Journal is publishing a week-long series to honor those who’ve served and those who gave their lives during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. To read stories, view photos and watch video, visit Sunday – How does the community help? A look at what’s available for veterans Monday – A father remembers his son Tuesday – Family keeps soldier at home year-round Wednesday – Wife carries on husband’s memory Thursday – A look at local soldiers who’ve lost their lives Friday – A Gold Star parent keeps traditions alive Sunday – A soldier comes home Homecoming help is here Here is a sampling of programs available for veterans: - Sierra College Veteran Services: (GI Bill educational benefits, educational, personal, and career counseling) (916) 660-7470, Facebook- Sierra College Veteran Services, (click on student services and then veteran services) - Sacramento Vet Center: (free confidential counseling for combat vets) (916) 566-7430 - Placer County Veterans Services: (veteran benefits) (916) 780-3290 - Returning Veterans Mental Health: Angela Boyd (916) 843-9439 - California Department of Veteran Affairs: - GI Bill Educational Benefits: - The Soldiers Project: (Provides free counseling to veterans and their family) - Give an Hour: (Provides free counseling to veterans) - The Forgotten Soldier Program (Part of The Healing Light Institute) (530) 889-2300 - Horseshoe Bar Fish and Game Preserve (Wounded Warrior event) (916) 205-6073