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University of Southern California: First-of-its kind regional veterans study explores the new face of veteran needs

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With a first-of-its-kind regional study of veterans’ needs launched across three counties in Southern California, the Military and Veterans Programs (MVP) at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Pack School of Social Work is leading the way in improving care for veteran populations. This is the first project MVP is conducting through the new RAND-USC Epstein Family Foundation Center for Veterans Policy Research, and involves a survey of approximately 3,600 veterans, including those who served post-Iraq and Afghanistan in places such as Syria and Africa to better understand how their transition experience may differ from what was learned about the transition of veterans who served in those two wars.

The Southern California Veterans Study builds on the previous State of the American Veteran series of studies that the MVP conducted in Los Angeles, Orange County, Chicago and San Francisco. The new study revisits Los Angeles and Orange County to identify how needs have changed in the last five years, and includes San Diego County veterans for the first time. Approximately 1,200 veterans will be surveyed in each county.

Led by Sara Kintzle, deputy director of MVP, and Carl Castro, professor and director of the RAND-USC Epstein Center, the study will conduct assessment surveys, both in-person and online, examining the veteran experience holistically: their transition out of the military, overall physical and mental health, relationships and connectedness, and any experiences during active duty that continue to impact them. Participants will also be asked about their access to veteran-specific care, perceptions about the quality of care available in their local community and what, if any, needs are not being met.

“We want to look at some of the new challenges that we know veterans have experienced over the past five years,” said Sara Kintzle, associate research professor at USC Social Work and principal investigator on the study “It’s an opportunity to take what we’ve learned from the previous studies, update the survey to look at this information in ways we haven’t yet, and really impact the community at multiple levels.”

Geographically pinpointing a variety of needs
The State of the American Veteran Study in Los Angeles County, released in 2014, provided local agencies with the data needed to justify an increase in grant funding for additional resources. The new study is designed to provide even more flexible data analysis that can be geographically pinpointed to a variety of needs. It will paint a picture of veterans’ conditions across all of Southern California and also provide accurate, localized data that government and community service providers need to address the specific needs of their populations.

Including the first examination of San Diego County veteran needs into the new study will open a door for this community to pursue different avenues of funding to increase access to services. It will also provide data related to the unique military culture in the San Diego area. One of the most difficult aspects of transition from active duty service is the loss of association to others with similar, distinctive experiences. Due to the high percentage of active duty personnel, veteran and military family residents in San Diego County, researchers hope to glean novel insight into whether transition is more easily facilitated among veterans in a community that is imbedded with a continuation of military culture following separation from active duty service.

“One of the benefits is that we are hoping to use the data in a lot of different ways,” Kintzle said. “I can give a Congressional leader information about their district. I can give L.A., Orange and San Diego County leaders information specific to their county. I can give state leadership information about a significant portion of veterans in the southern half of the entire state.”

Community partnerships are key
The Southern California Veterans Study is an example of effective partnership between academic researchers, government agencies and community organizations to bring the strengths of each to bear on the issues that contemporary veterans face. The MVP research team is partnering with veteran service organizations in each of the three counties who have strong networks of veterans that make it seamless to gather survey data and then integrate that data back into the local communities.

“It’s important to know how our neighbors are handling their issues, how we can learn from each other and adapt different types of systems,” said Aimee Pila-Bravo, director of the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative (LAVC) at Southern California Grantmakers, one of the community partners involved in the new study. “We’re really excited to encompass all of southern California in this study, learn how veterans feel about the services they’re receiving in these three counties with the understanding that we are all very different.”

A USC Social Work alumna and U.S. Air Force veteran, Pila-Bravo organizes the continuous collaboration efforts of over 2,000 veteran service organizations throughout Los Angeles County. Her expertise in community outreach was used to help craft the assessment surveys for the new study, ensuring questions would reflect the priorities for each county, as well as encompass changes in the national conversation.

“With so many charges for equity and inclusion, it was essential to incorporate what role race, gender and sexual orientation are playing in the transition to civilian life for veterans.” Pila-Bravo said.

Another significant addition to the new study is a focus on suicide prevention, which has increased among the veteran population since the previous surveys. Revised assessments aim to look at suicide ideation from a relationship and social connectedness perspective in concert with mental health needs.

“It’s really an incredible honor to do work that improves the lives of people who have served this country, and to give back to them and affect their lives in meaningful ways,” Kintzle said. “Working with these communities closely allows us to ensure the findings reach the organizations, practitioners and policymakers who work directly with veterans. This maximizes the impact of the work and that makes it very exciting.”