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Overwhelmed By Veterans In Need, Support Groups Try To Stay Afloat During The Pandemic

Members of the support group Merging Vets and Players (MVP) hold an online meeting. The group says 35 percent of its members have lost jobs because of the pandemic.
Emily Elena Dugdale
American Homefront
Members of the support group Merging Vets and Players (MVP) hold an online meeting. The group says 35 percent of its members have lost jobs because of the pandemic.

While support groups continue to meet with members by phone or teleconference, many are overwhelmed by veterans seeking help.

There are few places that the novel coronavirus COVID-19 hasn't touched. But advocates for veterans are worried that they will be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A study by the Bob Woodruff Foundation showed that 14 percent of the veteran workforce is employed in industries most affected by layoffs. Nearly 500,000 veterans live in the 15 cities "most likely to face significant impacts as a result of these industrial downturns," the report found.

It's not good news for an already vulnerable population who also build community from social support networks and groups, which the virus has also disrupted.

Some organizations are now shifting their services online, but things feel different.

A Los Angeles veteran support group called Merging Vets and Players (MVP) now hosts its weekly workouts and meetings over Zoom. On a recent Wednesday, more than 60 former service members - mostly combat veterans - used the teleconferencing platform as they did high knees, push ups, and a fiery round of jump squats.

Veterans worked out with their cameras tilted towards them in their bedrooms or living rooms. One swung his boxing gloves around in his backyard.

After a half hour, the workout ended and turned into a group conversation.

"This is where we can open up. There's all sorts of fighters here," MVP co-founder Nate Boyer said to the sweaty group.

This is similar to what this group did in person: they'd hit the gym and swap stories of their time in the service.

But now the conversation has shifted to their fears and concerns about getting through the COVID-19 crisis.

Former Marine Elliot Ruiz said his wife had a COVID-19 scare just after having a baby. They were running low on water and diapers until Ruiz mentioned it to the group last week.

"And an hour later I just saw a guy masked up, ring my bell, drop off a couple cases of water, a couple packs of diapers, and just run off into the night," he said.

"I just can't express how grateful I am that I had you guys there. And you guys have my back," he said to the group.

An Army veteran named Greg listened to Ruiz on the Zoom call. Greg is in L.A. trying to make it as an actor and asked that we not use his last name. He moved out of a transitional housing program for veterans in Hollywood just as COVID-19 forced people to stay indoors.

"It was kind of a very stressful time to move out," he said. "I stayed there for a long time."

Greg said he's nearly two years sober. Before the pandemic, he regularly attended 12-step recovery groups with other veterans to stay on track. They've managed to move online, so for now he's not skipping meetings.

At one of the virtual recovery meetings, people joined in from places like New York and Washington State.

"It's been a real blessing," he said. "We've been able to identify recovery communities that are thriving across the U.S."

In total he's plugged into about five support groups a week online.

But some problems are too big for a support group to solve.

MVP Executive Director Jacob Toups said the organization surveyed its members in late March as the COVID-19 crisis started to hit home.

"38 percent of them have lost child care support, 35 percent of them had lost their job at that point," he said.

The survey also found that more than 25 percent of members are afraid about their financial security in the next six to eight months. He suspects those numbers have increased this month.

"These challenges, I wouldn't say they didn't exist [before COVID-19]. But we had other social services or other things helping us out. And now the system [has] collapsed," Toups said.

MVP is launching a virtual fundraiser on its social media platforms to raise money for struggling members.

Toups says there's also been a drastic increase in veterans reaching out for mental health support services. He says many avenues for help are overwhelmed.

"Our program staff are now on their phone all the time every day, trying to get them connected to the resources," he said.

Toups says organizations are just struggling with the short term problems. "It kind of feels like everyone's trying to put their own oxygen mask on," he said.

What he's most nervous about is that people aren't thinking about what's going to happen in six or eight months. While businesses might be open, the problems will still linger.

"How do we make sure we're prepared?" he said.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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