As a journalist, I’ve interviewed dozens of soldiers from Iowa to Appalachia, Chicago to Texas for stories about veterans issues and also for my book Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things.
When I heard that a growing number of veterans who served post-9/11 are flocking to San Francisco, I imagined them suffering amidst the city’s antiwar activists. But after speaking with a number of young vets, I learned that San Francisco is one of the most veteran-friendly cities in the country, thanks in large part to groups like City College's Veterans Alliance and Swords to Plowshares, which offers services ranging from job placement to writing workshops, and. As artists, students, businessmen, activists, and nonprofit workers, these veterans are recreating their lives and challenging stereotypes about the military.
“My attitude when I got out of the military was, if I’m not in a position to create art and tell stories through art, I don’t know who is. A lot of veterans are taking the post-9/11 GI Bill as an opportunity to cultivate a lifestyle and redesign their future. You can go into any career or field. It is like an open blueprint that we can design for our own future. The military’s Basic Allowance for Housing is through the roof in San Francisco, so a lot of veterans come here. You have to take advantage of what you earned while you were in the military.
The club’s focus is to get veterans art jobs. I have been able to meet animators, painters, photographers – all different kinds of artists who are vets. We have the same kind of background, speak in the same terms, and understand how the transition has affected us, and are trying to prevent others from having a negative transition. There will easily be a network of veteran professionals in the industry who can all help each other out. We are infiltrating the industry.”
“When I left the military I didn’t have a defined purpose anymore. I didn’t know what I was supposed to dedicate my time and energy to, or how I was supposed to act. I felt really lost and lonely and fell into a severe depression. In my first class at Cal State when we went around introducing ourselves, I said I was a veteran and the dynamic completely changed. Other students avoided having any interaction with me. I had a hard time carrying on conversations with the younger students who didn’t have any life experiences outside of growing up. They took everything for granted. It was violently frustrating and my blood pressure would rise.
After the military, women tend to worry about school, getting a job, and helping their families. Men get out and think, ‘What can I do for myself now that I’m out? I want to learn how to snowboard or become a pilot.’ If male veterans meet each other it will be, ‘Hey you’re a Marine, I’m a Marine, let’s go grab a beer together,’ but female vets tend to be more isolated.”
“It is great to be somewhere you can speak your mind. But San Francisco is sheltered from the war. A lot of people think that most soldiers were either coerced into [the military] or want to kill someone. That’s definitely not true. I couldn’t get into the Peace Corps because I was so young, so the alternative was a branch of service. I wanted to try to go help people. I did that with a gun in my hand instead of a shovel or a vaccination.
When I moved to San Francisco, Bush was in office, protests were going on, and there was a lot of anger at the situation. People would ask why I joined and then thank me and say that they were sorry that I had to do it. I was sorry too, but I tried to explain the situation over there and justify what I took from it. I try to educate people on both stances, how people there felt about it and how and what we were doing to help and hurt them. I can give the city a different perspective.”
“I don’t think that many people even know about the vet community. My generation of vets doesn’t go around in camo caps or our fatigues, blaring it. People in my yoga class, for instance, say they never would have guessed [that I was in the military]. It isn’t something that comes up in the normal day-to-day, it’s not like a topic du jour. Talking about the war is kind of a buzzkill. People are curious about war because, to be honest, only a small percentage is directly impacted. It doesn’t get enough attention.
On a large scale, people are more concerned about the economy and Dancing with the Stars. People don’t want to think about the bad things. They cast a negative light on the military, which is unfortunate, because there is a very large population of post-9/11 vets who are extremely smart and able to do a multitude of tasks, and unfortunately they are labeled as second rate.
After Iraq, I became more politically active. When you see some of the stuff over there, like all the government waste, your mind changes. There’s a lot of buzz on Capitol Hill about veteran issues, but I thought a lot about how to translate that into community organizations and how to make an impact on people coming back.”
“When I came to San Francisco, I thought people would be against the troops and the military, but I found just the opposite. It’s one of the most vet-friendly places in the country. Another vet and myself started the City College Veterans Alliance where vets can come together, talk about what our needs are, and set our plans in motion. The school was nothing but helpful with open ears. Now City College has a $200,000 loan program just for vets, in case your GI payment doesn’t come through on time, since there is a huge disability claim backlog. It’s also the first school in the country to bring the VA to vets on campus. Returning vets are the best advocates because they can really speak about issues and ways that policy team or other organizations can’t. Once you isolate yourself you feel like you are the only vet living in San Francisco; it can be kind of scary.
Part of the reason why I came here was because I had strong feelings against the war and I found San Francisco’s Iraq Veterans Against the War. Their activeness comes and goes, but recently they fliered about the GI Rights Hotline at Fleet Week, which is of course a huge recruitment tool.”
The biggest advice these soldiers had for vets was to get connected with other vets and services.
• San Francisco’s new Veterans Resource Center is a one-stop shop for jobs, computer skills, benefits, and more. 401 Van Ness, Suite 205 (415) 441-5051.
• Get the 411 on your legal rights as a solider or veteran from the GI Rights Hotline (877) 447-4487, http://girightshotline.org/en/ .
• Swords to Plowshares provides counseling, job training, housing and legal assistance, writing workshops, and even rock climbing events for veterans: http://www.swords-to-plowshares.org/events/ .
• City College Veterans Resource Center (accepting donations!).