Memorial Day is a sacred time for Army Chaplains like me. We honor the lives of those who have not made it home or died in the field of service. I take a moment to remember all those whose lives have touched me in some way. I think about the friends that I have lost in war or to suicide. For me, it’s a day to reflect on the difficult cost of service for myself and those I love.
This year, I’m also thinking about the enormous pressures our military and veterans have faced since the start of the pandemic. “The last year has been tough, real tough,” a soldier tells me in downtown Los Angeles, a sentiment I’ve heard from many other California National Guard soldiers.
Whether it was during the protests, the record fire season, or the mega vaccination sites at Cal State Los Angeles, our uniformed citizens have taken center stage. So many soldiers have been called away from their families for months, facing the same challenges their neighbors face, but with increased responsibilities and a heroic ability to shoulder risk on behalf of their communities.
Today, we see the unsurprising effects of a year of intensified crises. The Defense Department’s quarterly suicide report documents that 194 reservists took their lives in 2020, increasing by about 40 from 2019. National Guard suicides also increased in 2020 from 90 to 118. These increases build on a steadily growing rate of active-duty suicides since 2016. Los Angeles has felt these deaths most profoundly as it is home to nearly 300,000 veterans and over 10,000 transitioning veterans per year – the highest concentration in the U.S.
While many social, economic, and policy factors contribute to this alarming trend within the veteran community, a persistent problem is apparent: many veterans struggle to connect with their communities and access the services they desperately need. Moreover, the physical isolation forced by the pandemic has made it even more difficult for veterans to find and access services.
In November 2019, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion authorizing the Director of DMH to execute an agreement with Southern California Grantmakers to “create a public-private partnership focused on the implementation of services to veterans using a peer-to-peer model.” The motion appointed SCG as the fiscal intermediary for the Veteran Peer Access Network (VPAN), a visionary response to the growing problem of veteran access.
VPAN is the first publicly funded, community-driven support network serving veterans and their families in the United States. Los Angeles County’s agreement with SCG budgets $13.8 million over three years to build a network of veteran-focused partnerships designed to connect veterans to the life-sustaining resources and supports they so urgently need. The Veteran Peer Access Network has already begun making an impact. In the last month, VPAN battle buddies provided services, points of connection, and referrals for over 220 different military and veteran families across Los Angeles County. In addition, the service referral network has grown to over 62 service providers connected via the Unite Us Software referral platform.
From the beginning, SCG’s Veterans Funders Group has played a significant role in the advisory board, grantmaking, and strategic implementation process. Leveraging the county funding, the Group helped shape the grantmaking process as SCG selected five community-based organizations (CBOs) across five Supervisorial Districts to lead the efforts to provide services to veterans and build out the network. Most excitingly, the group has recently directed funding to create a position at SCG to support the Unite Us network veteran service provider community and build a high-touch transition program here in Los Angeles through the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative. The program would provide mentorship and guidance to service members coming to Los Angeles from active duty, helping to connect with veterans and organizations that support them in transition.
This Memorial Day, SCG honors those who have lost their lives by building a world where veterans and those who serve know they matter. Where every service member, veteran, and family member can find and access the wealth of supportive services through the VPAN to live and thrive in our community. I can think of no better way to honor those who are not with us here today than by caring for those who are still with us. To find out more or get involved, please email Cristina Garcia, Director of the Veteran Peer Access Network, at firstname.lastname@example.org.