Veterans With Mental Health Issues Find Help in Santa Ana

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Veteran Matthew Aland paints a portrait of SAC alumnus Rafael Reynosa, who died in combat in Iraq. The painting will have a permanent home inside SAC’s Veterans Resource Center. / R. Nicanor Santana / el Don

While on patrol in Afghanistan in the summer of 2012, Santa Ana College student Matthew Aland and his platoon were caught in a firefight.

Aland’s comrade, who carried the only machine gun in the 12-man crew, had lost his vision due to heat exhaustion from the scorching Middle Eastern weather.

“I got the ammo, manned the machine gun and started shooting,” Aland said.

Aland and his team made it out alive that day, but when he returned home after his five-year service in the Marines, invisible wounds from the experience remained. Originally from Texas, Aland, 26, settled in Orange County after his tour, and within months he began showing the signs of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder that an estimated 11 to 20 percent of recent veterans say they experience: anger, isolation, depression.

Like so many others returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his symptoms went untreated, putting him at higher risk of life-altering consequences, including hospitalization, unemployment, and, ultimately, homelessness, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Fortunately for Aland and veterans like him who are struggling with mental health conditions after serving in the military, the resources in Santa Ana are growing. To help veterans on campus, SAC’s Veterans Resource Center offers various programs such as Veterans Upward Bound, Veterans Support Services and Strength in Support. Strength in Support provides counseling, mentorship and workshops run by veterans, therapists and military family members.

“We need more space for mental health personnel, facilities and aftercare to make sure this population gets the help they so desperately need and deserve,” SAC nursing program student Christina Griego said.

Griego works in the emergency room at Saddleback Memorial Hospital in Laguna Hills and empathizes with patients like Aland, who struggle not only with their PTSD, but are also unsure of how to ask for help.

“We need to break that stigma. People need to know it’s okay to seek help,” Griego said. “It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.”

By 2014, Aland’s binge drinking was out of control, his attempt to numb the emotional pain left over from years of active duty, which led to a car accident that nearly killed him and another driver.

“That was a profoundly guilty experience because I just wanted my downward spiral to affect me, but it had collateral damage, bringing someone else down with me. That’s something that I still struggle with,” Aland said.

When Aland’s apartment lease ended shortly after, he became homeless, one of about 50,000 veterans who sleep on the streets each night in the U.S. A fellow veteran, who worked at Veterans First in Santa Ana, invited him to the facility. There he was offered housing, meals and mental health counseling at no cost. He stayed for seven months until the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave him a voucher for an apartment.

“I was out of a job and needed a place to live [but] I couldn’t afford anywhere to live in Orange County. I knew I had to live in Orange County. I knew I had to be productive and I liked school,” Aland said of why he eventually enrolled at Santa Ana College.

The Mental Health Association of Orange County on Main Street also offers services to help local homeless veterans. There, they are able to wash their clothes, store their belongings during business hours and are provided bus passes and other resources to help them transition into permanent housing.

An estimated 15,000 people sleep without a roof over their head in Orange County every night, with nearly 500 of those living inside Santa Ana’s Civic Center, according to 2-1-1 Orange County, a nonprofit that provides health and human resources in the area.

Twice a week Matthew Fink, a U.S. Marine Corps Veterans Outreach assessor for the mental health association, searches the Civic Center for homeless veterans with mental health conditions. He offers services to those who have a hard time transitioning from their military routine to civilian life.

“We come home and some of us fall hard and fast, and if no one is there to help you back up, you stay down,” said Fink. “That’s why the suicide rate is as high as it is.”

An estimated 20 veterans commit suicide daily, according to the latest statistics released last July by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Veterans may be reluctant to seek and accept help due to fear of police, distrust in government, and are weary of civilians who have a negative stigma on them,” said Fink. “Their transition to civilian life is emotionally difficult.”

For Santa Ana’s homeless veterans, there is now more hope for housing. On Oct. 5, the first transitional around-the-clock shelter in Orange County, the Courtyard, opened at the old Orange County Transportation Association bus depot after it received $1.4 million from the Orange County Board of Supervisors in September.

The shelter will have free rent for a year, and will be eligible to renew its services for an additional year.

“Our homeless population, many of whom are veterans who honorably served our country, deserve our attention and a helping hand,” Andrew Do, Orange County supervisor, said in a statement released by Midnight Mission.

The Courtyard will have programs to link homeless, including veterans with or without mental health issues, to local institutions like Veterans First that will provide them with transitional housing.

After hitting emotional rock bottom and then finding assistance from not only the VA, but also the Housing Authority and Santa Ana College, Aland is thankful for it all. He currently takes honors classes for biology and still visits the Veterans Resource Center, where he is currently working on a portrait of a slain soldier who grew up in Santa Ana.

“With Veterans Day [coming up], it’s like opening up a cauterized wound. It’s a little bit of apprehension towards the pain associated with that, as well as hope that there will be relief,” said Aland. “But mostly, it’s gratitude for where I am.”

R. Nicanor Santana