By Karen Billing
During a period in early 2011, Carmel Valley resident Rick Collins lost four friends, all members of the military. Two died in combat and two took their own lives. All were under the age of 25.
The losses made Collins, himself a veteran of the British military, think about the gaps that exist in providing these young veterans a successful transition back into civilian life.
Too many struggle, he said, and the statistics are staggering: 22 veterans commit suicide every day, the highest point since World War II. The unemployment rate for California veterans ages 18 to 24 is nearing 30 percent, with 30,000 more veterans expected to return to the state in the coming year. Among married couples, domestic violence rates are high and many spouses struggle to comprehend combat trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“That demographic is really the most underserved and the most at-risk demographic we have,” Collins said. “They are really struggling to find work and find their way in life. They’ve lost everything they’ve known since high school and there’s just not much out there for them to sink their teeth into. If we can come together as a community and help these young veterans it will pay off in a big way.”
Collins decided he would do his part to help, launching the nonprofit Veterans 360 last October. Working with a group of 12 young veterans at a time, the organization offers help in engagement, education, employment and healing.
“We’re helping 12 young veterans in each squad to move into the next step of their lives, not to head to substance abuse, to become homeless or take their own lives but to be successful,” Collins said. “It seems cliché to say we’re saving a life but maybe we are.”
Collins likes a quote from author and actor Capt. Dale Dye, retired USMC, who said, “We didn’t tell them combat is easy. We need to stop telling them civilian life is.”
That’s his goal with Veterans 360, to connect and engage with young veterans early and get them going in the right direction early, to “prevent despondency from kicking in.” If that despondency does kick in, Collins wants to be sure these young veterans have the tools and support to be better equipped to deal with it.
“It’s not a handout, it’s a commitment,” Collins said. “It’s a pretty intense process and if they commit, we’ll be able to get them the education, jobs, off drugs and alcohol, and the support they need to get through the tough times.”
Veterans 360 focuses on the basics of personal engagement — getting the veterans together with a team of friends going through the same experiences, to have fun but also commit to a process that helps them adjust to a return to civilian life.
They work on building their resumes and getting skill training that makes them more attractive to employers and hopefully on a path to a “meaningful job,” one that Collins believes the veterans have earned.