Community must aid vets, official says

Readjusting to civilian life presents quite a challenge for veterans returning from war.

During a Veterans Day Appreciation Reception on Friday in the USC Radisson Hotel, René Bardorf, deputy assistant secretary of defense for community and public outreach, emphasized the importance of reintegrating soldiers and including veterans in the community.

According to Bardorf, a survey conducted this year revealed that 95 percent of soldiers feel disconnected from civilians -— a statistic she said must change.

Bardorf explained that soldiers are three times more likely to volunteer in their community than citizens who have not served.

“They can help shape the future of the country, but they need help from the community,” she said.

Many veterans present for the speech agreed with Bardorf’s statements about the disconnect.

“It struck a cord,” said David Kim, a senior majoring in business who served in the Navy. “What she said is what is in our subconscious. She had it on the dot.”

For many soldiers, the biggest adjustment is being away from their unit, Bardorf said. The lack of cohesion makes reintegration a challenge, as veterans feel alienated from society and without anyone to talk with.

Though Bardorf’s grandfather, father and husband all served in the military, she admitted she never fully understood the life of a post-war soldier until her own work with veterans.

Bardorf has had some incredible interactions with injured veterans through her work with the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which  provides immediate financial assistance for injured and critically ill members of the U.S. Armed Forces. She told a moving story about a soldier who had lost his vision, both his legs and one of his hands. He was in the hospital with his parents, and Bardorf was charged with delivering a relief check to him.

“I was terrified to go on the hospital unit floor,” Bardorf said. “I had never seen someone who had been through that. I was shaking like a leaf.”

What touched her most, however, was the soldier’s kindness and resilience.

“He said ‘the only thing I miss is the unit back in Iraq. Not my legs or my vision, just my unit,’” Bardorf said. “That experience changed who I am.”

Bardorf also emphasized the importance of motivating veterans to tell their stories.

“Share your story with civilians,” Bardorf said. “They only hear what they see on the news. They don’t hear what’s in your hearts.”

She explained that if she had not heard the stories of the wounded Marines, she never would have gained the perspective on veteran life that she has today.

The integration of veterans into civilian life is always difficult, but even more issues can arise for student veterans. Bardorf said. Student veterans often have trouble relating to peers who might not understand or appreciate what they’ve been through.

“It feels trivial versus the work they’ve done in service,” Bardorf said. “They feel they have to deal with inefficient or ineffective professors and teachers.”

Joshua Jacobs, a senior majoring in business who was a sergeant in the Marines and served from 2007 to 2011, strongly agreed with this point.

“We have to deal with so much just to get here,” said Jacobs, who is the president of the USC Veterans Association. “It’s really hard to readjust. No one appreciates the lives we have lived. It can become easier to overcome when they find that community.”

Shane Quinn, a senior majoring in business who served in the Marines from 2004 to 2009, expressed similar sentiments about the challenge of relating to peers.

“Your whole life is turned upside down,” Quinn said. “You go from everyone understanding you to being in college where no one understands.”

Not only do veterans feel isolated, but they also often sense confusion from other students who might not treat their service time respectfully.

“Students are not aware,” Kim said. “They are very oblivious to asking inappropriate questions. They will ask, ‘How many people have you killed?’’

In an effort to improve support  for student veterans, Jacobs and the association are currently working on hosting networking events for veterans.

“When soldiers are in school, we treat it like the military,” Jacobs said. “We put our heads down and do what we are supposed to do — do well in school. Often they forget to think about what happens after school.”

With Veterans Day on Monday, Bardorf closed her speech by urging students to express their gratitude for veterans.

“Find a way to thank a vet,” she said. ”Their sacrifice needs to be appreciated at home.”