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Witness Testimony of M. David Rudd, Ph.D. ABPP, Dean, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Scientific Director, National Center for Veteran Studies University of Utah

Good afternoon Chairwoman Buerkle, Ranking Member Michaud, and Members of the Subcommittee.  I greatly appreciate the opportunity to testify on behalf of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah and the countless American Veterans that have served and sacrificed.  I want to thank Chairwoman Buerkle for providing much needed leadership on an issue that will become increasingly important given the end of combat operations in Iraq and the planned reduction of forces in Afghanistan.  The successful reintegration of many of our troops into civilian life will require thoughtful and coordinated efforts between the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and community organizations, with communities of faith offering particular promise.  I am grateful for Chairwoman Buerkle’ S efforts to draw attention to the problem of reintegration, particularly given that there is an intellectual and emotional disconnect between those that have served and the rest of society.  Since the Gulf War, less than 1% of  Americans have served in the armed forces, a dramatic shift from World War II (almost 9%), Korea, and Viet Nam (both greater than 2%).  The remarkably small number of Americans choosing to serve in the Armed Forces compounds the potential for misunderstanding,

As a veteran of the Gulf War era and a clinical psychologist, I am keenly aware of the issues faced by service members both engaged in combat and returning from war.  Over the last decade, I have been involved in the treatment of service members experiencing emotional and psychological problems secondary to combat and serving during wartime.  In particular, I have directed treatment research focusing on active duty service members that have made suicide attempts.  Although my research is only partially complete, what has become clear is that many service members (and families) need assistance in order to make a successful transition from military life.  My work has been focused on that portion of the Veteran population that has struggled and experienced emotional and psychological problems. It’s important to point out, though, that this is only a portion of the population, with many making a seamless transition to civilian life.

A recent survey of Veterans by the Pew Research Center (2012) revealed that 27% of Veterans reported that re-adjustment to civilian life was either “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult”.  The survey also revealed significant “burdens of service” with 48% reporting “strains in family relations”, 47% frequently feeling irritable or angry”, 44% reporting “problems re-entering civilian life”, and 37% reporting “post-trauma symptoms”.  Despite the fact that many Veterans transition from military life with few problems, these data indicate that many have difficulty making the shift. 

The Pew data offer insight into the source of the problems as well, with emotional and psychological adjustment at the forefront.  Among those having experienced combat, 50% or more report post-trauma symptoms and difficult family relations.  When queried about factors reducing the probability for successful re-entry into civilian life, Veterans identified traumatic experiences and injury as the most significant variables. Of importance for this hearing, Veterans identified “attending church at least weekly” as the most important variable associated with an easy and successful re-entry into civilian life. A remarkable 67% identified attending church “once a week or more” as making re-entry easier.  Clearly, the social connection and support offered by religious institutions around the nation are essential for our Veterans. The Pew study also reported that churches were second only to the military itself as “institutions” in which Veterans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence.  Clearly, communities of faith offer a unique and critical opportunity to connect with Veterans transitioning from military life.  If aware and appropriately trained, clergy can serve a critical role in assisting Veterans struggling with emotional and psychological symptoms.  Available data suggest communities of faith as a critical linchpin in helping Veterans transition to civilian life.

My own work has helped clarify the severity and magnitude of the emotional and psychological issues faced by a particularly large subset of the Veteran population, student veterans. Nearly two million Veterans will return home from overseas deployments as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn.  A large number of them will make use of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and transition quickly to college and university campuses.  My recent study of student veterans nationwide revealed that many student veterans struggle with psychological symptoms, consistent with the data reported in the Pew survey.  More specifically, I found that almost 35% of participants reported suffering “severe anxiety”, 24% experienced “severe depression” and 46% reported “significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder”.  Somewhat alarming, my data indicate that 46% reported thoughts of suicide, with 20% having a plan.  Further, 10.4% reported thinking about suicide “often or very often” and almost 8% reported making an attempt, almost six times the frequency of the general student population. 

From the limited data available to date, it would appear that problems with psychological and emotional adjustment are perhaps the single greatest barrier faced by returning Veterans transitioning to civilian life.  Of particular importance for this committee, two community resources offer a unique opportunity to engage and connect with Veterans, communities of faith and college and university campuses.  Veterans hold religious institutions in high regard, reporting that regular contact and participation help “ease” their transition, offering critical support and assistance. Similarly, college and university campuses are arguably second only to the VA itself as institutions where the largest numbers of Veterans gather. 

The VA has already expanded efforts to actively collaborate with college and universities around the country, including an increase in positions allocated to the Vet Success on Campus program and the new VA campus grant program funding projects meant to extend services to student veterans and extend outreach on campus, with five projects funded to date (Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership Initiative-VITAL).  I would also like to mention and applaud VA efforts to explore additional partnerships with colleges and universities.  I recently participated in a meeting with the Assistant Secretary of the VA for Policy and Planning, Dr. Henze, along with a collection of other campus leaders to discuss possible collaborations to meet identified Veteran needs.  The VA has been proactive on this front, an effort that should be commended.

Let me emphasize my support for efforts on both fronts; that is, working directly with communities of faith around the nation, along with college and university campuses.  There is empirical evidence indicating a significant need, along with data to suggest these two domains offer unique opportunities and promise to help ease the transition to civilian life.  Training is needed in order for communities of faith to effectively respond to the demand.  Many clergy members are already aware, sensitive to, and equipped to respond to the psychological and emotional needs of Veterans. Large numbers, however, are not.  Given the serious nature of the problems identified (e.g. suicidality) thoughtful and thorough training is needed. The National Center for Veterans Studies would welcome the opportunity to assist in any such effort.

As with communities of faith, many colleges and universities around the country are unprepared to meet the psychological and emotional needs of student veterans. Although some entities offer training for college counseling centers, such as the Department of Defense Center for Deployment Psychology, resources are limited.  Greater resources are needed to meet the growing demand.  In response to this need, The National Center for Veterans Studies will be launching an effort to form a national higher education consortium targeting student veterans. We would welcome the chance to partner with any similar efforts around the country, including any launched by this subcommittee.

Thank you again for the opportunity to address the subcommittee. These issues are critical and the needs of many of our Veterans transitioning to civilian life are profound.  The National Center for Veterans Studies is poised to help.  I am happy to respond to any and all questions. 

References:

Pew Research Center, The Military-Civilian Gap: War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era, January 13, 2012

Rudd, M.D., Goulding, J., & Bryan, C.J. (2011).  Student veterans: A national survey exploring psychological symptoms and suicide risk. Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 42 (5), 354-360.