Above: Congressman Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) talks about the House passing three bills he recently introduced that support veterans. Photo by Samantha Taylor
OCEANSIDE — Matt Foster remembers how it felt to lose the military’s invisible arm of support when he retired from the U.S. Marine Corps.
After years spent as a Marine, he wasn’t fully prepared for his transition into civilian life. Foster, now a commander of VFW Post 1513 in Escondido, took a handful of Career Transition Assistance Plan classes and was sent home with a “stack” of paperwork amongst other things the military piled on before he left.
“It’s how the military does stuff,” Foster said. “They throw everything at you, say ‘here you go, digest this…’ but you’re not in that mode. I wasn’t in that mode.”
Foster is now in the business of helping other veterans get the resources they need, and he is quite pleased about the House of Representatives passing three bills proposed by Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) that aim to help veterans.
Levin and several members of local veterans organizations, including Foster, gathered during a May 28 press conference at North Coastal Mental Health Center in Oceanside to call on the Senate to support his legislation.
One of those bills is called the Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Bill” Mulder (Ret.) Transition Improvement Act.
According to Foster, transitioning into civilian life is often challenging for veterans, especially when the system they’ve lived with for years suddenly disappears.
“You’re in an institution that literally takes and gives everything, and it’s all invisible to you,” Foster said. “Administration will say you need to go to a dentist and you don’t even think about it, you just show up and do what you’re told.”
Levin introduced the bill with Rep. Jodey Arrington, a Republican representative from Texas who was best friends with Bill Mulder, the veteran whose name is on the bill.
Mulder died by suicide at the age of 46.
As suggested by the title, the bill aims to improve the Transition Assistance Program for service members returning to civilian life.
Foster said it would have been nice if there had been some support services or additional classes made available to him after his retirement from the Marines.
Still, Foster described his time transitioning into civilian life as a retired master sergeant aviation maintenance chief was easier than a 24-year-old corporal might go through.
With the GI Bill, Foster was able to go back to school while receiving a monthly $2,000 check. One day, he noticed his monthly check was late.
He found out it was because he was on break from school and wouldn’t get another one until classes resumed.
Luckily he had retirement, benefits and other income to keep him afloat, but eventually it struck him — what if he were that 24-year-old corporal who depended on that check to make his car payment or rent?
Since that realization, Foster has been helping other veterans as chairman of the North County Veterans Stand Down, an annual four-day event in Vista that helps homeless veterans from across San Diego County to receive needed services in a safe, drug-free environment.
During their stay, homeless veterans and their families receive food, lodging, clothing and other services to help them both physically and mentally.
The Stand Down also brings together multiple local veterans organizations that otherwise don’t communicate with each other to a one-stop-shop for homeless veterans.
The House also recently passed two other bills introduced by Levin that support veterans.
One is called the Veterans’ Education, Transition, and Opportunity Prioritization Plan Act, which would prioritize veterans’ employment, transition, housing and education benefits at Veteran Affairs.
The third bill is called the Vet Center Eligibility Expansion Act, which would expand the eligibility to receive counseling from VA Vet Centers to members of the National Guard and Reserves or Coast Guard who served during emergency situations in the wake of a national emergency, major disaster, civil disorder or drug interdiction operation.
Foster noted that the National Guard is a separate entity from the military complex that’s funded by the states rather than the federal government, which means they don’t have nearly the same amount of money.
Still, many National Guard members are experiencing similar trauma that military combat veterans have gone through.
“I was out there in Iraq three times and the National Guard was out there too,” Foster said.
Levin introduced all three bills with Republican congress members, which he pointed out to demonstrate the bills’ bipartisan, widespread support.
Levin said he anticipates the bills will make it to President Donald Trump’s desk before the end of the year.
Levin also recently introduced a bipartisan bill called the Housing for Women Veterans Act, which is meant to help end homelessness among women veterans and their families.
The bill would re-authorize funding for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant program at $400 million for fiscal years 2020-2022, and require that at least $20 million go to organizations that have a focus on helping women veterans.
According to the San Diego County Point-in-Time Count, there were approximately 1,312 homeless veterans counted in 2018.
The 2019 numbers show that there was a total of 8,102 homeless counted in 2019, with 4,476 listed as unsheltered. About 10% of the unsheltered homeless in 2019 are veterans.
Even Foster was homeless for a time, but not as a veteran — while he was active duty.
In 1998 when Foster moved from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro to Camp Pendleton, there wasn’t enough housing to go around.
His family stayed with other family members up north while he slept in the barracks, but eventually he was kicked out to make room for newcomers. After that, Foster lived in his car for six months.
Foster explained that many veterans may shrug off homeless at first, reassuring themselves that they at least have a car and aren’t getting shot at while trying to sleep.
“Marines especially but all veterans don’t like to ask for help,” Foster said. “We’re used to living in crappy conditions.”
But as things get worse and worse, and homelessness lasts longer, Foster said it’s hard for those veterans to come back from that.
“It’s all interrelated: mental health, homelessness, lack of affordable and available housing, trying to find good jobs, all of these things are directly linked,” Levin said.
According to Levin, it’s going to take a village — or in this case, San Diego County’s civilians and military communities — to combat those issues.
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son