USC Tackles Tough Military-to-Civilian Transitions at Upcoming Conference

Veteran transition to civilian

The Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families (CIR) at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work held its first State of the American Veteran Conference in the fall of 2016. Thought leaders and professionals from corporations, community organizations and philanthropic foundations examined new research on the needs of veteran communities in California with the goal of providing recommendations for how to make the state more military- and veteran-friendly. As CIR has continued to study veteran populations outside of the region, researchers have found that most veterans face similar challenges regardless of location.

This year, the State of the American Veteran Conference (September 28 and 29) is expanding its scope to cover the needs of veterans and military families across the country as they transition from military to civilian life. Attendees will have the opportunity to choose a track that focuses on specific populations, including combat veterans, student veterans, women veterans, Guard and Reserve service members, and children and families.

In anticipation of the September conference, we sat down with Sara Kintzle, research associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, to discuss the trends that she has seen among the veteran populations she has studied across the country and the goals of the upcoming event.           

Much of your research, as well as the conference itself, focuses on the transition of veterans into civilian life. Why focus on transitions?

We focus on transitions because transitions are difficult. They are a point of intervention. And when we think about how we want to improve the lives of service members, veterans and their families, we want to prevent challenges from occurring. A great place to start is at the transition point — when these people are coming into our communities, when we can get to know them and understand their needs and address their needs.

What were some of the trends that you observed across regions? 

In general, what you see is a lack of preparedness for transition and a lack of understanding of expectations for what life is going to be like after the military. Of course, we anticipate a series of unmet physical and mental health needs. Those are common themes within every study we do.

When we did the first study in Los Angeles, we weren’t expecting the amount of unpreparedness that we found. But because we saw that in Los Angeles first, we weren’t necessarily surprised when we saw it elsewhere. Eighty percent don’t have a job when they leave the military. Sixty percent don’t have permanent housing set up when they leave the military. These are essential things that you need to sustain your life.

When reviewing your recent research, it did seem like some communities, such as San Francisco’s veterans, may be having a tougher time transitioning than others. Why might that be?

There were differences in each community. In San Francisco, we did see much higher rates of difficulties for their group. There’s a real lack of services for veterans in San Francisco. I wouldn’t say it’s a community that has come together and really established a standard of service for its veterans. It’s a high cost-of-living area which brings a lot of challenges. We also had a large population of veterans in that study with a less-than-honorable discharge status, who themselves are a vulnerable population that come with their own challenges that aren’t being adequately addressed.

A large number of veterans who have participated in your research studies expressed that they do not feel civilians understand what they are going through when they return. How important is it to educate civilians about the struggles veterans may be facing? 

I think it’s important, but it’s also something that is difficult to do. We have such a small military now that we live in a country where many people don’t know anyone who has served. It’s important to educate the public if we can, but I think our strategy should be to educate veterans on what to expect when they leave the military and how to handle those differences. It is more difficult to change the mindset of the whole civilian population as opposed to changing how veterans react to them. They are both very important, but what we can do right away is help people who are in transition to understand what the civilian world is like and how to manage those expectations.

What are some of the biggest challenges social workers face when addressing the needs of the military population?

I think it’s really understanding the experiences of people who served in the military and communicating that well. Getting people to come in for services is hard no matter who they are. This group is particularly difficult because they feel like people don’t really understand their experiences, and they’d much rather talk to someone who has served. Many of us who help haven’t served in the military, so it’s our job to really understand the military, understand what it’s like to serve in the military and to communicate that right from the beginning of meeting a veteran.

What outcomes are you hoping to see as a result of bringing leaders in the military social work field together for this conference?

What CIR does — which a lot of people don’t do — is try to really, truly understand problems and challenges. People often like to jump to solutions. And when you do that without understanding the problem, you don’t really know if you are addressing the right problem. You don’t know if the way that you are addressing the problem is the right way to address it.

After doing these studies and really understanding the problem and writing concrete recommendations for what should happen, this conference will focus on how we move forward now. What do we do now to make these changes that we know need to be made based on our empirical data? I hope we can build off of these studies to actually make changes that veterans can see in their everyday lives.

The State of the American Veteran Conference will be held September 28 and 29 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Registration is currently open. For updated information about the schedule and speakers as well as how to attend, please visit the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families conference page.

Register today for The State of the American Veteran Conference.