Overwhelmed By Need, LA Veterans' Support Groups Try To Stay Afloat

Members of Merging Vets and Players meet online. (Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

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There are few places COVID-19 hasn't touched. But veterans' advocates are worried former service members will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

A national study by the Bob Woodruff Foundation found that 14% of employed veteran work in industries most affected by layoffs. That would certainly include a portion of L.A. County's veterans, estimated to number around 300,000.

It's not good news for an already vulnerable population that has built community via social support networks and groups, which the virus has disrupted.

Although some organizations are now shifting their services online, things feel different.

An L.A. veterans support group called Merging Vets and Players (MVP) now hosts its weekly workouts and meetings over Zoom. On a recent day, more than 60 participants — mostly combat veterans — used the teleconferencing platform as they did high knees, push ups and a fiery round of jump squats.


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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.

Now, the conversation focuses on their fears and concerns about getting through the COVID-19 crisis.

'YOU GUYS HAVE MY BACK'

Former Marine Elliot Ruiz said his wife had a COVID-19 scare just after having a baby. She had symptoms and they both self-isolated before learning they had tested negative. Meanwhile, they were running low on diapers and bottled water until Ruiz mentioned it to the group last week.

"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 told 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.

'THE SYSTEM [HAS] COLLAPSED'

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

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

The survey also found that more than 25% of members are afraid for their financial security in the next six to eight months. He suspects those numbers have increased since late March.

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

He says he's most nervous about what's going to happen in six or eight months. While businesses might be open, the mental health problems will 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.