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Groups offer hope for veterans struggling to adjust to civilian life

Stephen Huba
| Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, 11:00 a.m.
August Sander, who is working to obtain a master's degree in criminology at Saint Vincent College, is presented a check by David Hollenbaugh, associate vice president for institutional advancement, while receiving the college's first annual Veterans Scholarship on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
August Sander, who is working to obtain a master's degree in criminology at Saint Vincent College, is presented a check by David Hollenbaugh, associate vice president for institutional advancement, while receiving the college's first annual Veterans Scholarship on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.
August Sander, who is working to obtain a master's degree in criminology at Saint Vincent College, is presented a check by David Hollenbaugh, associate vice president for institutional advancement, while receiving the college's first annual Veterans Scholarship on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
August Sander, who is working to obtain a master's degree in criminology at Saint Vincent College, is presented a check by David Hollenbaugh, associate vice president for institutional advancement, while receiving the college's first annual Veterans Scholarship on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.
August Sander, who is working to obtain a master's degree in criminology at Saint Vincent College, is presented a check by David Hollenbaugh, associate vice president for institutional advancement, while receiving the college's first annual Veterans Scholarship on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
August Sander, who is working to obtain a master's degree in criminology at Saint Vincent College, is presented a check by David Hollenbaugh, associate vice president for institutional advancement, while receiving the college's first annual Veterans Scholarship on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.
August Sander, who is working to obtain a master's degree in criminology at Saint Vincent College, poses for a portrait before receiving the  college's first annual Veterans Scholarship on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
August Sander, who is working to obtain a master's degree in criminology at Saint Vincent College, poses for a portrait before receiving the college's first annual Veterans Scholarship on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.

For some veterans, life in the military is a springboard to a promising future.

August I. Sander, 26, of Monroe­ville felt that way when he left the Navy in August 2013. The Greensburg native said he enlisted in 2009 after high school in the hopes that the military would better prepare him for college.

“I needed time away from the books,” he said.

Sander used the GI Bill to pay for his undergraduate education at Saint Vincent College and recently, as a graduate student, became the first recipient of the college's $1,000 Veterans Scholarship.

It's possible, he said, to serve four years in the military and still go back to school.

For other veterans, however, military service can seem like the end.

Brandon Rumbaugh, 28, of Uniontown felt that way when he returned from Afghanistan in 2010, after an IED explosion that took both of his legs. The Marine corporal spent almost two years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., undergoing extensive therapy before returning home in 2012.

The assistance of several nonprofit organizations, including the Butler-based It's About the Warrior Foundation, helped him begin life anew as a civilian, he said. He now sits on the foundation's board and directs its financial grant program.

“When you're in the military, they do everything for you. They provide housing, food. You don't have to focus on that stuff. So when you transition to civilian life, you have all these things to take care of,” Rumbaugh said.

Successfully making the transition to civilian life is the biggest challenge facing post-9/11 veterans, he said.

“A lot of them come home and they don't have a huge support system. When they fall behind, they don't know where to go for help,” he said.

Rumbaugh oversees a program that gives $1,000 grants to qualifying veterans to help them with utility bills, mortgage payments, rent, car payments and tuition. So far this year, he has approved $48,000 in grants, he said.

Foundation founder Steve Monteleone said most veterans' struggles — lack of housing, financial instability — can be tied to problems with employment.

“It's hard to transition into civilian life from the military. Finding that job to match what you did in the military is a challenge, then you fall behind financially,” he said.

Among the biggest hurdles to successful employment for veterans are substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other mental health issues, experts say.

In 1979, Congress took note that Vietnam veterans were not adjusting well to civilian life and created the Vet Center Program as part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Three hundred Vet Centers across the country, including one in White Oak, Allegheny County, offer free counseling services to qualifying veterans.

Westmoreland County Veterans Affairs Director Matt Zamosky said he regularly refers veterans to the White Oak Vet Center and wishes more people knew about it.

“Sometimes it feels like we're the best-kept secret in the VA,” said White Oak Director Nancy Mizak, a retired Air Force master sergeant.

Most of the White Oak clients come from Westmoreland County, but the office also serves Somerset and Bedford counties and part of Allegheny County. In the fiscal year that just ended, the office recorded 3,700 visits for everything from PTSD to military sexual trauma, she said.

White Oak clinicians, all of whom are veterans or the spouses of veterans, provide individual and group therapy, marriage and family counseling, and bereavement counseling. Vet Center records are confidential and kept separate from the VA medical system, she said.

Even though eligibility is measured by deployment to a war zone, no veteran is turned away, she said.

“We do the finest job in training them to go to war, but what kind of training does one get when returning from war?” Mizak said. “War changes you. Working through to readjusting to civilian life doesn't mean something has to be wrong with you.”

Also serving Westmoreland County veterans is the newly opened Strive Health of Greensburg. The clinic at 101 N. Main St., Suite 200, provides substance abuse and mental health counseling for military veterans and other clients.

Executive Clinical Director Brian Kephart, who came to Strive Health from the VA, said services in Westmoreland County are sparse despite the fact that veterans constitute 10 percent of the population.

“We know the need's there. The numbers show us that there's a need for services in our area,” Kephart said. “I didn't see a lot of them reaching out for assistance through the VA. I don't think they know the help that's out there.”

Kephart, a licensed clinical social worker, said substance abuse feeds on the isolation of the veteran, especially the combat veteran who uses drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.

“They come home, they isolate, and a lot of them use,” he said. “Isolation is one of the biggest components of someone dealing with trauma.”

Sander, the Saint Vincent student, said veterans who want to improve their lives have to do the research. He found that the resources are out there, including assistance to cover the costs of tuition, housing and books.

A third-generation veteran, Sander served on the USS Porter and achieved the rank of petty officer second class. While deployed in the Persian Gulf in 2012, the destroyer collided with an oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz.

Sander spent time in Dubai while his ship was being repaired. He returned to the United States to study criminology at Saint Vincent, graduating this year. He works at Adelphoi, helping troubled youths, and hopes to become a probation or parole officer.

“When you're in the military, it's very job oriented. You don't have much time to prepare for your departure from the military,” he said.

“You can lay out all the plans you want, but until you leave, you don't really know what's going to happen. It's kind of a leap of faith once you get out. If you don't have all your ducks in a row, a lot can go wrong.”

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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