Help on the homefront
Butte County libraries host discussions about returning from combat, open veterans resource center
What is it like to return from war?For military members, there’s a sense of loss from leaving the close-knit community of brothers and sisters they’ve lived and fought side-by-side with. There’s a sudden void where structure and purpose once presided. There’s the onslaught of emotions long suppressed in the face of combat. Of course, there’s more.
For those who haven’t been to war, though, it’s difficult to truly understand. But recent discussions hosted by the Paradise Friends of the Library through a Cal Humanities grant brought some of it to light.
“I got involved in this because of the war that’s been ongoing for more than a decade,” said Joanna Gutierrez, a friend of the library and project director for the California Reads grant, the theme of which was War Comes Home: Our Veterans, Our Communities. A wife of a veteran, she knows first-hand some of the struggles returning soldiers face. “It’s important that we pay attention to what’s going on and to the effects of war on our service people, their families and the community.”
The grant helped make the discussions possible—there were eight of them in total, with only one left, this weekend at the Chico branch of the Butte County Library—and added focus by providing copies of Karl Marlantes’ best-selling nonfiction book, What It Is Like to Go to War. About a dozen people attended the most recent event, held at the Paradise Town Hall (there was a book sale at the library) on Saturday (Nov. 1). Some were veterans; others were family members of veterans; others yet were veteran advocates.
Some of the comments were eye-opening.
“During World War II, everyone had a part to play,” one veteran said. “Now we’re disconnected, we’re not invested.”
“All we see is what the media feeds us,” a veteran’s wife chimed in. “For us [at home], it’s business as usual.”
“The whole country stopped [when the U.S. entered World War II],” recalled another vet, who served in the Korean War. “You’d see a guy in uniform on the streets and offer him a ride; we’d bring him home to dinner. There were veterans parades in almost every town. It hurts me to see these guys coming back and the country doesn’t do anything for them.”
According to the U.S. Census, there are more than 19,000 veterans living in Butte County, the majority of them in Chico. That’s why, on the heels of receiving the War Comes Home Cal Humanities grant, folks at the Butte County libraries started looking at other ways to address issues facing veterans. Sarah Vantrease, librarian at the Oroville branch, noticed an opportunity to apply for funding—via the California Department of Veterans Affairs—to create a Veterans Resource Center in Butte County. The funding was approved and the center is scheduled to open in the Chico branch by the end of the year.
“Chico has the largest number of veterans in the county, and with a VA service center there, people might already be traveling to Chico to access veterans services,” Vantrease said by phone. “Overall, this project and initiative will help all the libraries. There will be training for all library staff, not just in Chico, to be able to give quality referrals to veterans who might be looking for things like medical care, employment or housing.”
Brenda Crotts, librarian for the Chico branch, will be attending a training session along with Adrienne Martin, the branch’s volunteer coordinator, Thursday and Friday (Nov. 6-7). When they return, they’ll train the rest of the library staff. The funding they’re receiving for the center will cover materials—both written and video—and the Friends of the Library have offered to pay for new furniture to ensure a private space where veterans and their family members can come in and find resources, work on résumés, and explore housing and medical care options.
“Adrienne went on two tours of Iraq. When she got back, she didn’t know the resources available to her. She helped set up one of these [service centers] in her college,” Crotts said. “Veterans relate better and are more likely to go to a place where there are other veterans. Adrienne is a veteran. But we are also trying to get veterans to volunteer at the library.”
Tangible things like the resource center are steps in the right direction, Gutierrez said. But she’s not about to back down from her goal of improving the experience of coming home for local veterans. Part of that is simply educating the public about what people who serve our country in this way go through due to the emotional and physical effects of war.
“Now that the military is all-volunteer, the vast majority of people in this country are never affected by war. It is actually not a part of our lives,” said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, who recalled his uncle’s return from Vietnam, when people actually spat on veterans. “The only way we know how not to repeat the sins of Vietnam is to say, ‘Thank you.’ But I was never invested in your service.”
One veteran said that, upon his return from Afghanistan, he noted the superficiality of most Americans’ patriotism—flags and yellow ribbons with little of substance backing them up.
“You support the troops, fine. But we don’t need your support until we come home,” he said. “And it just wasn’t there.”
Statistics show he may be right. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports that veterans account for 12 percent of the adult homeless population in the United States. That equals about 50,000 people on any given night. In addition, PBS reported that the unemployment rate among young veterans—those who’ve returned from war since 2001—was 9 percent in 2013, higher than the national average of 7.4 percent. Those ages 18-24 fared much worse, however, with a jobless rate at 21.4 percent.
“Our veterans are very capable and intelligent people,” Gutierrez said. “They served our country in the military and they’re poised to serve our country as civilians. We just need to raise the awareness level of that. I think we did that in our community with our talks. We started that.”