Credit: UCLA

Veterans’ military service can leave them with unique challenges that are unsurprisingly exacerbated by the stress of the pandemic, but many also gain unique strengths that others can learn from right now, says Tess Banko, a Marine Corps veteran and executive director of the UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center.

During a recent UCLA Connections webinar recorded on Oct. 29, Banko discussed how we can better serve those who have served, the challenges that veterans face during the pandemic, and what our community can learn from veterans about resilience during this challenging time.

Her center, based at the Veteran Affairs West Los Angeles Medical Center, continues to provide resilience training and other services to veterans and their families.

Excerpts from the 25-minute conversation are below, and several of the resources mentioned during the webinar are linked at the bottom of the page.

Tess Banko headshot
Tess Banko
Credit: UCLA

UCLA Connections are conversations intended to build community and foster resilience as we address and adapt to the changes brought about by COVID-19. The Veteran Family Wellness Center is part of a unique partnership between UCLA and the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and was created to serve the unique needs of veteran families. They provide a range of wellness services, including individual, couple, and family resilience programming, events and workshops, and quality referrals to mental healthcare and other resources.

Q: Before we can talk about how to serve veterans, it helps to know what challenges they’re facing. Generally speaking, how are veterans faring during the pandemic?

A: Well, like any population, it varies. There are currently 18.8 million veterans living in the U.S., with the smallest component of those being women veterans. Here in Los Angeles, we have about 340,000 veterans and even more family members.

Veterans have a number of conditions that make them even more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19. That includes prior trauma, so if a veteran or a family member has experienced a stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury, or any other prior trauma, this time we’re in might be much more difficult. Isolation is a marker of post-traumatic stress, and as you know, many of us are isolated from friends and family at the moment. Additionally, a lack of routine for a veteran who has experienced traumatic brain injury can be extremely stressful and routines have completely shifted as a result of the pandemic. For a veteran who has experienced military sexual trauma, this time could stir up and inflame feelings of moral injury and feeling unprotected from the pandemic and racial unrest in the country at the moment.

Besides that, there can be many challenges associated with reintegration. Even though we’re in the midst of the pandemic, active duty military families and veterans are still transitioning out of the military. A major life transition like this can result in the loss of mission, identity, meaning, and purpose, which can be a serious mental and emotional challenge.

Q: What are ways the average person can help their family, friends and neighbors who are veterans?

A: You can take opportunities to engage with the veterans in your life, and maybe learn a bit about their culture. Military culture and practices are so varied between the different branches, so that can be an interesting topic to engage on and learn about. You can simply them about their service, for instance, the question “what was it like to serve?” is always a fantastic place to start.

You can also offer opportunities to serve around the neighborhood like a charity drive, like collecting toys for tots or canned goods, in addition to social opportunities. You can always invite a veteran to a meeting of an organization that your part of like Rotary or the chamber of commerce. I was invited to the Pacific Council on International Affairs by a community member, and it made a huge impact on my life as a veteran by giving me an area to examine outside of my work. It was a great gift. Conversely, you could ask what organizations that they are a part of and attend a meeting with them at your local American Legion, VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars], DAV [Disabled American Veterans] or Vietnam Veterans of America chapter. Veterans are not a homogenous group — they come from various cultures and have a wide range of interests, so you can interact with them in whatever way works best for you.

Q: We’ve looked at many of the challenges that veterans are facing, but there are also strengths and experiences gained in military service that make veterans especially resilient. What can the rest of us learn from veterans right now?

A: I think that one of the key aspects of being a veteran is the idea of serving something greater than yourself. Veterans have a certain grit that comes from challenging yourself to make it past seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and we have the innovation to carry out whatever our mission may be. We’ve looked at many of the challenges that veterans are facing, but there are also strengths and experiences gained in military service that make veterans especially resilient. Veterans recognize the importance of uplifting others, because we realize that it’s on us to support our country and our communities. The core values of every branch of service are also incredibly valuable, for instance the Marine Corps, where I served, emphasizes honor, courage and commitment. All of these ideas are always relevant, but I think particularly in this moment, they are worth considering for everyone.

Resources mentioned during the webinar

Programs for veterans:

Programs for others to support veterans: