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The war comes home: transitioning to civilian life


Aaron Glantz is a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting and author of the book, The War Comes Home. He talked with KALW about what makes the transition to civilian life so hard.

AARON GLANTZ: I think that when you have been through a war and you have seen killing, you may have participated in killing...[you've seen] your friends get killed in a war...Then you come back to the United States, to San Francisco or Berkeley or Palo Alto, and the war is a world away and nobody understands what you've been through. It's incredibly isolating.

Then if you have PTSD or another kind of psychological injury from the war that's constantly putting you back in that war space, even though technically speaking you may be in a very safe environment it may be very difficult. This is one of the reasons why so many veterans sleep with their weapon. Because you are trained to sleep with your weapon in the war zone, and then when you come back and people have trouble giving that up. It's like your security blanket. It's why so many returning veterans have trouble in their personal intimate relationships. It can be difficult to have that kind of intimacy when there's this thing between you and your spouse called "the war" that the other person doesn't share.

HOLLY KERNAN: So what's it like for a vet to try to access services at the VA to get help or care they need and to which they are often entitled?

There are three main systems that veterans try to access when they come home. The easiest is the G.I. Bill. Congress, in 2008, improved the G.I. Bill dramatically and the VA has overhauled how it's delivered, so it's a relatively easy thing for veterans to go to school after they come home. Most of them are starting at the community college level.

The second bureaucracy is the health care system. The health care system for returning veterans was a complete disaster when this war started. President Bush did not invest in the health care system when he started this war, even though obviously a massive war in Iraq was going to create large numbers of casualties. There was no hiring for years of doctors, nurses, psychotherapists, etc., to care for these people. Beginning in 2008, the VA began to get more money and hire more people. FreeHealth care was extended to all veterans in the first five years after they come home. That's been very helpful. Even so, the average wait time for a psychiatric appointment at the VA, according to the Inspector General, is 50 days.

Click the audio player above to hear the rest of the conversation.

Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.