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Addiction, Unemployment, PTSD: Challenges Facing San Diego Veterans

November 11, 2013 1:24 p.m.


Phil Landis, Executive Director, President, Veterans Village of San Diego

Susan Davis, U.S. Representative, 53rd Congressional District

Scott Peters, U.S. Representative, 52nd, Congressional District

Related Story: Addiction, Unemployment, PTSD: Challenges Facing San Diego Veterans


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: San Diego honors veterans today and the efforts to help vets struggling with civilian life. This is KPBS Midday Edition. The Veterans Day Parade is underway downtown San Diego. We will speak with Phil Landis, Executive Director of Veterans Village on who's struggling, what's needed and how they are being helped. US congressional representatives from San Diego Susan Davis and Scott Peters will tell us how veterans issues are being handled nationally. And the people who've lost spouses join together for support at Camp Widow this year in San Diego. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. KPBS Midday Edition is next. First the news. What is San Diego is doing to help veterans need a hand and get national help for vets Rep. Susan Davis and Scott peters. This is KPBS Midday Edition. It's Monday, November 11th. Here are some of the San Diego stories we're following in the KPBS newsroom . Members of San Diego's Filipino community are working to contact relatives after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan. Our media partner 10 News reports that the international relief team based in San Diego has already sent $20,000 to help pay for supplies for the typhoon survivors. With just over a week left in the race the top candidates for Mayor of San Diego will appear at the forum at the California Western school of law at 6:30 this evening. The special Election takes place on November 19th. Listen for the news through the day right here on KPBS. Our top story on Midday Edition, it's Veteran's Day in San Diego and as ever the annual Veterans Day parade is underway. It is one of several parades and events to honor veterans said the county but there are many veterans in San Diego who need more than a parade and a thank you. They need help transitioning back to civilian life or help with a disability. They need treatment and training to overcome addictions, get employment and finding help. I spoke with Phil Landis, president and executive director of veterans village of San Diego. Here is that interview. Phil, on this day when we take time to stop and think about those who served their country what are some of the big issues facing San Diegans on Veterans Day?

PHIL LANDIS: Well there are many of them. Some that are obvious, jobs, employment. There's a lot of discussion of course about posttraumatic stress. The young men and women that are often suffering with traumatic brain injury these are the ones that you must think of, but beneath that there is a host of issues that spring from that. Many of our young men and women are beginning to present themselves especially in our treatment facility with the traditional addiction issues of alcohol and drugs. We are beginning to see prescription medication issues as well. This is very troubling. There's a lot of pain medication which is prescribed while on active duty. These are opiates. You can get addicted to them and that leads to what we are seeing a rise in here with addiction amongst young men and women.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Remind us how much a hub San Diego is for veterans. We always hear San Diego has one of the largest number of veterans of the country. Why is that?

PHIL LANDIS: I think there are several reasons. One is that it's just a nice place to live. Secondly a lot of our soldiers and read court may have entered service you have MCRD here which is one of only two entry portals and Marine Corps. And they come back here. It seems to be a destination of choice among many of the service members when they are coming out of active duty. They want to come to San Diego. I want to tell you that the veterans hospital here in La Jolla is seeing a very large number of post-9/11 veterans, one of the largest numbers of returning veterans in any city in the country is in San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, that dark side of that of course is that one of every four homeless people on my streets of San Diego is a military veteran. I wonder what kinds of help men and women need when they get out of the service. So they do not sort of like It is situation. What do they need that they are not getting?

PHIL LANDIS: That's a really good question because this generation of warriors is really receiving more benefits, more resources, more positive energy from the VA, the public, from national resources than any other returning group of men and women from or in our history. I think a lot of it is centered around being young. Being cast adrift after spending many years in a highly structured environment. A lot of the issues are faced by this generation, the 9/11 generation of men and women we sort of accepted historically as one of the part of the genre of issues that men and women have. The question is how do you reach them? How do you get to them? How do you say look we are here to support you, what do you need? Often times the message is there but they do not hear it till it is a crisis. And it could be too late. What we are trying to do in San Diego County and many other locations around the country and this is APA directive. Is be preventative. Try and find that nexus point before somebody falls into homelessness. Veterans Village was fortunate to prevail with a wonderful grant from the VA called SSBF. This program's design and sole purpose is to go out to reach, find a young man and women before they fall into homelessness. And provide them with resources. It's very powerful and it works.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We've been emphasizing men and women because the demographics apparently are showing us that more and more women of course our survey means that's leading to more women that's becoming homeless.

PHIL LANDIS: They are and we are seeing them at the treatment facility we are seeing them at all the facilities around the county. We have five facilities around the country. Veterans village houses around 500 people every night. Now what used to be called the winter shelter, now it is a veteran shelter, we, for the first time last year opened up the space for females. We always have some there. It will break your heart. This facility is full almost every night. There are some nights now that it's getting colder there is a waiting list of and we are turning people away. Keep in mind this is a timeline just last year our county added over 500 shelter beds and we are still at capacity turning people away. But we are seeing more and more females. The limit that we are seeing have enormous challenges they have the same challenges as the men do in so far as addiction and trauma issues layered on top of that is military sexual trauma.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Which we have heard so much about recently Congress has been taking it on we heard statistics last week about that. And you are seeing it in the veterans who come seeking help for veterans Village?

PHIL LANDIS: Almost to an individual. In fact so much so that we are going to be breaking ground on a building a campus, the top deck is going to be specifically for a female military sexual trauma track. Separate residency, same campus, to integrate these into the curriculum.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Besides offering beds to homeless veterans and other things you've been talking about, does veterans Village actually have the capacity to help someone help turn their lives around? In other words do you have treatment programs? Do you have job programs? What kind of services do you offer?

PHIL LANDIS: All of the above. We've developed since 1981. The same community providing continuous care for all these decades, we've developed a continuum of care. The only thing that is missing is permanent housing and we are in the process of developing permanent housing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you more about that but I also want to ask you about what we've been reporting from time to time in recent months and that is this tremendous backlog of veterans federal disability claims. They've not been processed by the government there are so many veterans who have to wait I mean a year, sometimes more, people who are disabled, to get their money. I'm wondering what do you see, what are veterans going through because of these long waits?

PHIL LANDIS: Well it's a really a tragedy. The VA is making great strides in trying to alleviate some of these backlogs. However I do not think it is enough. I think you could ever do enough. What you are talking about it real world is who is disabled in some way and is waiting through a compensation process which could take a year or longer. To receive benefits. What do they do in the meantime? A lot of the folks slide and slide in there like about our doorsteps. That's I'm talking about when you find that nexus point. We need to look at be able to send somebody how do we fast track this man or woman, how do we get benefits to the person? Maybe you don't have to wait until the entire claim or maybe seven or eight items on it is fully adjudicated before you start providing this person benefits. Let's get said money in their pocket let's get counseling of some kind, let's do interventions so that we can save the misery that is ongoing when somebody is disabled, has earned the right for compensation and then has to go wait for it. Along the same lines think of a man or woman who comes out of combat, comes back to civilian life, has posttraumatic stress disorder they are having trouble getting on with their life. Incidentally, most people with PTSD, they can't manage that and for most folks you know, you can't learn to fold that into your life it's not that it goes away it never will. There is a subset where it is chronic and severe. So you have both of these going on. The press focuses on chronic and severe. It's really a subset of this population. Why can't we get some benefits to these folks? What happens if at the end of the day we have made a mistake? Big deal, right? So isn't it better to try to help somebody before they fall from grace than to say I'm sorry you're going to have to wait a year for your benefits, what are they supposed to do?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We did get some good news from Gov. Brown recently. He signed a number of bills targeting homelessness among veterans and they will be providing funding to expand affordable housing. This, do voters have to approve this new veterans housing and homelessness prevention bond?

PHIL LANDIS: They do. It is AB639, my understanding is that it will be on the June ballot. It must gain approval by the electorate to go in to affect. It is a very important issue. And I would ask everyone to pay attention to AB639. And focus on it and come to their own conclusions but it is something that will benefit thousands and thousands of deserving veterans of the state of California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What we do here in San Diego, how would the money be used?

PHIL LANDIS: Organizations like ours would queue up, they would say we've got a shovel ready project or projects. Help us fund it. And there will be a process I'm sure. We're going to compete along with many others for funding to provide permanent housing for our veterans that live here in San Diego County because there are many of them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In this year Phil, the San Diego veterans honored by Vietnam veterans and you are a Vietnam vet. From your perspective I'm wondering there are so many things that you guys faced when you got home that nobody really knew about, nobody really knew about posttraumatic stress disorder. You know, the whole agent orange struggle that some veterans have had to take that down the line through the years. Wondering when you look at your own experience based on the experience of the young men and women coming back from the most recent wars that America has fought, what do you think are the similarities and the differences?

PHIL LANDIS: There are more similarities than not. If you go back and read the Iliad for instance when you are talking about the Greek and Trojan wars and you read that on and you took with it up on where they are talking about what we now define as post traumatic stress and you layer over our definitions of PTSD you will find they were writing about some of the same issues 2500 years ago. That we face today. So the core issues of trauma for warfare which by its very nature is obscene, is the same. Whether you know, you were the first cave person and you picked up a rock and knocked your neighbor over the head with it or you are and Afghanistan veterans who is coming out next Tuesday. Those trauma issues remain the same. You know, we are you are wired for this sort of thing. I don't think humanity was wired for it. So we have to suffer with them if we are going to continue to kill each other in a manner which we seem to be so good at it is really difficult. It's very difficult my generation came home and all the doors were shut. You mentioned a few moments ago about the lasting legacy of the Vietnam veterans. I think this is it that we forced doors, we forced recognition of, issues upon the public and guess what? The VA, the public, the government eventually paid attention to us and because of that these men and women who are coming home today have an enormous number of resources which my generation didn't have. I think it's terrific. 100 years from now historians will say that was lasting legacy of Vietnam veterans.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Since the stories are so similar, does it open old wounds for you to hear some of the stories from the veterans coming home today?

PHIL LANDIS: Sure, absolutely. I went through some of the same things personally. My healing process after decades and decades of being out there, drift really started with the vet centers here in San Diego and I spent many years at the vet centers and they brought me into balance have been goodness they are here. They are here today for this new generation of men and women as well. We are very fortunate here. I will go so far as to say blessed in San Diego to have the finest VA medical facility in the country. I get to travel all over the country and visit other facilities. Nobody does it better than we do here in San Diego. And Jeff (Gladis) that director of the VA hospital here truly understands the definition of collaboration and partnerships with community-based organizations. That is what is needed. That is what really serves these young men and women the best.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Phil Landis is executive director of the veterans village of San Diego. Thank you, thank you for your service. Thank you for all that you do.

PHIL LANDIS: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Coming up, more on veterans issues and an update on top issues in Washington with Representatives Susan Davis and Scott Peters. It is 12:21 and you are listening to KPBS Midday Edition. This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. America has lived through more than a decade of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan but it's been America's armed forces and their families who have shouldered most of the burden. After 9/11 a generation of people signed up for military service eager to defend the US from its enemies. And many of those veterans face lifelong challenges and they are looking for the support they need from the government they served. On this Veterans Day we are pleased to have to members of San Diego's congressional delegation joining us both members of the House armed services committee Susan Davis representing San Diego's 53rd District. Congresswoman Davis, welcome.

SUSAN DAVIS: Hi Maureen, nice to be with you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Scott Peters is here. He represents San Diego's 52nd District and he is in studio with us. Thank you, Scott.

SCOTT PETERS: Thank you. Happy Veterans Day

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: 50th district Rep. Duncan Hunter was invited to join us but he did not respond to our request. Let me ask both of you, let me start with you Susan Davis, you just arrived from the veterans day parade downtown. What was the atmosphere like?

SUSAN DAVIS: It was great actually. At one time the veterans parade sort of fell into disfavor I guess you would say it was not a popular event and it was difficult for people to get it organized but now the Midway Museum has taken it on and there were so many families, so many young people and it was just great to see kids with flags and I always feel like I want to thank them for being there because they really honor our veterans by their presence and it is great to see so many people coming out and of course it was a beautiful San Diego day, but nevertheless having the opportunity for many of our veterans to march and be seen and have a chance to see one another is just great. It's wonderful.


SCOTT PETERS: It was great. San Diego is so prominent in the nation's defense we are proud of our role in national security the San Diego veterans parade is a natural place was really warm, figuratively warm, place for gratitude and I certainly sense a really good feeling.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Congresswoman Davis we had good news today about decreasing the backlog of the a disability claims, a problem has been devastating for many veterans waiting a year or more for their benefits.

SUSAN DAVIS: Yes, it's really unacceptable when it happens and I think there are many people who have been working hard on this. Our efforts with shutting down the government and even sequestration have not helped, have not assisted that effort but I think nevertheless they've been able to lower the backlog actually since March by about a third, 600 to 400 roughly thousand claims and that's good but I feel like it's not enough we have to do better. It's just not acceptable that people have to wait well over a year. The somewhere in the neighborhood of about 93% they are trying to have completed within a year but we know that it means for so many of their families that they are waiting a very long time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Congressman Peters, the number waiting one year has decreased from 250,000 down to 34,000. Now the average wait time for disability claims system to four months. What more needs to be done to make sure disabled veterans get their benefits?

SCOTT PETERS: One thing that struck us is there's two different medical record systems for medical records, the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration inevitably that is cumbersome for families to deal with and it turns out one hundred percent of veterans come from the Department of Defense. A lot of people are raising questions about why there's not just one system for medical records it would be easier for people to deal with. I agree with Susan. We need to keep making it a priority and what surprises me as a freshman member of congress is how much time the staff spends helping people who call us because they cannot get through the VA bureaucracy. They need a more customer service kind of attitude. We actually have spent so much time on this that we can adapt at the end of September we've recovered $398,000 in total benefits for veterans and their families and their survivors. But you shouldn't have to call your Congress congressional office to get the service. It should come more naturally and organically.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Scott Peters, another problem facing San Diego veterans is homelessness and (inaudble) city shelter that servicemembers built in Congress recently Gov. Jerry Brown just signed the state bill that puts a measure (inaudible) to build affordable housing for veterans. And I'm wondering how can state and federal help coordinate efforts on veterans housing?

SCOTT PETERS: The good news in Veterans Affairs is a lot of people who want to help. At least on the outside it doesn't appear to be a particularly partisan thing. There's a lot of room for cooperation and we certainly welcome the governor's activity. We are also locally we have helped launch something called the military transition support project which is an effort when we work with San Diego great weight makers we work with retired Mayor Ronnie Frohman and a bunch of the various community groups to help organize all the volunteers we have the San Diego we have an army of them I guess which is terrific but a lot of times when a that comes up from the gulf he or she doesn't know where to go for employment services or skills training or personal counseling because we are still losing 22,000 veterans a year to suicide around the country we are opening up the grounds for volunteers there's a lot of room for cooperation sure that would come pretty easily in this area.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Susan Davis, I was speaking with Phil Landis just before you came on, of the veterans Village he said here in San Diego you think more homeless female veterans many of whom are victims of military sexual assault and I know this is a big issue for you, what is the military doing about this problem?

SUSAN DAVIS: Hopefully we are having a lot more counselors on board to help men and women who are going through this transition that other persons in uniform are going through but then, on top of that there are so many more family issues, the ability to go home and take care of children is something that is tough really for women returning from a war zone. On top of that you have to sexual assault issues that present themselves to people in many different ways and we are just trying to get a real handle on what that means. I remember the hearing initially when we had women serving actually in Falluja in Iraq and they were part of the lionesses actually and came back to the VA and the VA basically said to them you cannot possibly be suffering from posttraumatic stress. Because you are not in a war zone. We know that they were and that they were affected by it. It is so important, there are so many multiple problems that women are facing and the reality is there are just so many more of them than we've ever had serving in a war zone or serving overseas, serving on a deployment in these long wars that we've been involved in and it makes a big difference people who understand and have really learned from their stories in their experiences and are now applying it. That's where we are beginning to see some differences.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Scott Peters, I know a lot of Congress has heard a lot of testimony from survivors of military sexual abusive also from the top brass themselves basically saying you know, the problem we didn't know it was as bad as it is or where are we now on that. Is that and acknowledge problem that is being worked on?

SCOTT PETERS: I think so. My observation is that the military is a little bit behind in that they know it. They, they've been getting more attention to this. There is no doubt about that. I think it has not taken effective way that we needed to so there's a lot of pressure to ratchet it up and I think the interesting issue is how much are they are going to have to turn to ratchet up their own because I think people are getting really impatient that is my observation in my first year.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Last month San Diego Congressman Darrell Issa released a rather scathing report, PA talks about culture mismanagement and reckless spending. Entity with a number of conferences that number of years ago I'd be interested to get your take on that let me go to you first, Congressman Davis?

SUSAN DAVIS: I think our focus has really been on making sure that they get the job done. And so it has meant a focused partly on management and why they can't do that. Do they have folks that are just not well-trained enough? Is it just a number of people going through the system now? It's unlike what we've ever seen in our country and we've never had some people who have come back with multiple needs, disabilities, both physical and mental. That has really changed the dynamic. I think of what the Veterans Administration has get to people. That is why we have to do a better job. You know this idea of commitment to the men and women who have served our country is absolutely central partly because we have to address the needs of what many times are you families who are dealing with the wounds of war. But also because we always have to count on others be willing to volunteer. That 1% of the population, George Washington, even then he point to that could be the difference in your vets life. recognize that at the beginning of our country and that people would be reluctant to serve if they did see dead people took care of those who came. So, for those reasons I think we can't give up on that commitment to buy meat many people who are check this link. Who are serving our veterans, but yet there are too many stories, and we've had one locally here in San Diego that actually we shared with the New York Times today, the story of Daniel. And clearly that was a situation where he did not get the attention he needed. And you have to wonder, had some and then there, had someone make the appointment that was necessary

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering the report on mismanaged spending, what is your take on that when it comes to the the VA?

SCOTT PETERS: I would say I have not seen the report yet, the problem I agree with Susan we talk about the bureaucracy and inefficiency it has a huge effect on people whether it's Daniel Summer's suicide that might have been prevented or young family struggling to pay the bills that there other benefits that they cannot get through the bureaucracy to get. They face (inaudible), uncertainty feeding her children that is no way to treat our returning vets. It may be the are coming up more than expected because the volume of returning vets is a lot higher. I understand that but there's no reason not to be in front of that and set this as a priority. I think that's what frustrates a lot of us who come in contact with the families who are struggling because of the bureaucracy. Not just because of the management issue. We have to think about real customer service and dedication to stand behind these people who stand behind us.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Speaking of Congressman Issa, he's said to be writing his own immigration reform bill this topic house on moving forward on immigration reform bill passed the bipartisan bill in the Senate. Let me go to you first Congressman Peters.

SCOTT PETERS: You probably won't get the answer from Susan and me, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill I don't love everything about it, I think frankly I would are just some of the resources from the Walter the defense promote trade. Which is also part of security but the house Democrats have submitted arrow bill which provides that kind of flexibility. I put a bill on for infrastructure myself we are ready to go the problem we have is we can't force the majority to put something on the floor there's every reason to think that if we put either bill on the floor they would have a good chance of passing it's one of those rare issues where everyone in the community seems to be in agreement the US Chamber of Commerce, the labor unions, the Farm Bureau, obviously human rights groups. It would improve Social Security, it would lower the deficit it would improve growth by 3%. We have every reason to do this, so we agree with the people who are frustrated about why it is not house on the floor. We'd love to see you be able to vote for it.


SUSAN DAVIS: It seems to me the economic argument is so strong. One of the things you try to do is in constituencies where people personally don't feel as affected me. I don't have the same exposure and relationships in the community with those who have immigrated recently to the community, I think that such that is really where we have to go. Because in many ways that tradability commerce to the (inaudible) we know how strongly it is an issue on the border and how we are impacted by that negatively because we haven't solved this problem. That seems to me one that we have to get out there we've been trying. But I sometimes get the feeling from my colleagues that it is not important to their constituents. Therefore they don't see that it is something that they want to risk in terms of their own political future. And this is so important to our country and we've got to find a way to do that. We found a way I think to find the open up government again I think would unfortunately we have to deal with that again, deal with the budget. These are very part critical issues but this is particularly has a strong economic impact and we've got to get about it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My last question I want to get back to what we are here today for Veterans Day there's a tragedy unfolding in the Philippines in the wake of one of the strongest storms ever. One of the things the American military does is they respond to humanitarian disasters. What are our plans to lend aide to that (inaudible)? Susan Davis?

SUSAN DAVIS: My understanding is that the Marines, there's a contingent on the ground. They are on the island where the most damage is occurring. Unfortunately they are seeing the possibility of another storm on the way. I think the military is going to respond as it does. And we have been trained beautifully in this regard. I've always felt that one of the things we need to talk about we need to budget for and we need to be very conscious of how it matters to the rest of the world is our response to disasters. I think it is a great role that the United States of America plays. And I think that our military could move so quickly, they can, they are just so well-trained to be able to do this. So I certainly hope we will be able to help in any way that we can and I believe that out reaching to the community as well and we certainly encourage people to call our office if they feel there is a role we can play.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there. I want to thank you both for rushing over from the parade today. I really appreciate it. Thank you for being here, Susan Peters and Scott Davis.

SUSAN DAVIS: Thank you Maureen

SCOTT PETERS: Thank you Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Still ahead a group dedicated to help with the special needs of young people who have lost their spouses. Much too soon. That this as KPBS Midday Edition continues.