Veterans and Communities: Opportunities for Service and Collaboration

By Gabriella Chiarenza

What is it like to be a young veteran in the United States? How do veterans reconnect with their communities, and what kind of work are they interested in? What are the greatest challenges in the readjustment to civilian life and in what ways can neighbors, employers, elected officials and others best support veterans in this transition?

These were among the questions we had embarking on our most recent issue of Community Investments, which is devoted to veterans and community development. We drew upon the expertise of a wide range of community development practitioners and service providers with the articles in this issue, which speak to challenges and efforts around housing, employment, financial stability, and health services for veterans, but it was also important to us to hear from young veterans in their own words about what their lives have been like after military service.

We are pleased and honored to be able to feature in this issue of Community Investments interviews with three veterans, all of whom are giving back to their communities while taking on the next phase of their careers in a civilian environment. Their stories helped us to understand the valuable role of veterans in many community efforts, particularly those geared toward assisting other veterans and getting them involved in local service initiatives, and the diverse skills, interests, and motivations veterans bring to the table. For instance, after completing his own education, Zack Totans has returned to academia to help other veterans in Nevada to navigate higher education environments and pursue their interests while also connecting them with veterans in the area. Kristina Enriquez draws on her ongoing education in kinesiology and nutrition to assist struggling veterans in Southern California who face health issues and works to bring veterans together through physical activities and community service. Also in Southern California, Paul Greive established a successful family farm as a veteran entrepreneur, putting skills he honed in the military to use to bring responsibly and sustainably raised meat and poultry to his community.

In our interviews with Zack, Kristina, and Paul in the current issue of Community Investments, we asked each veteran about their work, their experience returning to civilian life, and their advice for veterans who want to get involved with community efforts and community members seeking to collaborate with veterans. Here are some excerpts from the interviews.

Zack Totans on returning to college as a veteran:

“I began college immediately after I was discharged from the military. …I was very nervous at first because I had been out of school for so long and wasn’t sure what to expect. Once I realized that I was capable of handling the curriculum I was fine. I actually found that the combination of my military experience and older age made me a much better student than I was previously. I had much more dedication and patience with my classes and the coursework that accompanied them. One of the greatest benefits that student veterans should utilize is student veteran clubs or organizations that are located at most schools. The time that I spent as president and member of the University of Nevada – Reno’s Student Veterans of America chapter proved to be very valuable as a resource to assist in my overall success as a student.”

Paul Greive on translating military skills into successful strategies as a civilian entrepreneur:

“A big thing you learn during your service is the value of teamwork, and that’s important in this work because you can’t pull off an entrepreneurial venture by yourself… It’s a balance or self-reliance with building a network or team that can help you out and get what you need to get done. That drive you learn in the military is pretty much everything. As an entrepreneur, you don’t have a nine-to-five schedule; you’re not clocking out or anything. It’s a true, true grind, much like it is on a deployment. When you’re carrying out a mission in the military, there are not always exact rules or regulations to follow – you’re literally just doing whatever it takes to get the job done. I feel like that’s a huge advantage that members of the military have over anyone else who tries to start their own business. We’ve been through complex challenges already and we know when to push ourselves and keep up that drive.”

Kristina Enriquez on the value of reconnecting with fellow veterans and serving your community alongside other veterans:

“Even if it’s not cross-generational, we all have our own experience in the military, also across different parts of the military. Talking to Marines, for example, they have a totally different experience than what I had… For me, just being able to help a fellow veteran is hugely rewarding, and in return, there’s a lot of perspective that they can offer that I might not have received from anyone else. So I think it’s definitely beneficial to both parties… I think it’s important to find [community] programs that specifically target veterans, so that [veterans] can feel more comfortable. I know a lot of people who are recently transitioning back to civilian life find it a little bit harder to immerse themselves in their communities because they just feel out of place, so I think they should definitely find ways to get involved with their communities along with other veterans. I think it will help them to be around other people who understand them, and then it can also give them that sense of purpose back.”

Read the full interviews with Zack, Paul, and Kristina, along with articles highlighting successful veterans’ service initiatives across the country, in our newest issue of Community Investments.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Federal Reserve System.

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