SMC veteran storms the hill

Robert Contreras has had an active part in the Student Veterans' Association at Santa Monica College. He recently joined Phi Theta Kappa and will graduate with a liberal arts associate degree in social and behavioral science at the end of this semester with hopes to attend the University of California, Los Angeles in the fall. Contreras also plans to get his master's degree in either public policy or social work. His passion lies in veterans' advocacy and he hopes that he can make a career out of it. Contreras, a US Navy veteran, joined his fellow veterans for Storm The Hill in Washington, D.C. on March 16. Every year, veterans from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan "storm the hill" to discuss concerns of their communities to the members of Congress, Contreras said.

This marked the seventh year of the leadership development and advocacy program for the nonpartisan, nonprofit group known as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, according to Contreras.

In total, 46 veterans participated in this event. Twenty-nine of them, known as the “stormers," attended the meetings in person with members of the House and the Senate. The other 17 veterans, called the “swarmers," were busy sharing their agenda on social media sites, while contacting their local representatives to gain support and create awareness.

“The primary goal of the event this year was to focus on the backlog of healthcare claims from the department of Veterans Affairs," said Contreras. "As such, we were presenting a petition urging the president to form a commission to identify the source, or sources, of the backlog and come up with solutions so that veterans of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are not waiting 273 days on average, [or] 619 days in LA, to receive the necessary medical care."

According to Contreras, the most common injuries resulting from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan have been related to mental health, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries. Veterans are promised five years of health care, but because proving to the VA that these injuries resulted from their service in the military, it is hard to get the full medical care they are promised.

To create awareness, Contreras said he and the other veterans circulated the petition and were able to obtain signatures from 23 members of Congress, and almost 40,000 signatures from U.S. citizens when they presented it to the White House staff.

Contreras mentioned this was his first time being involved with the political aspect of veterans issues, although IAVA has been working on many of these issues since 2004.

Last year, Contreras was elected president of the SVA at SMC, where he works with the Veterans' Resource Center on issues that impact veterans, such as the availability of academic counselors and institutionalizing the staff to process paperwork.

Contreras originally joined the Navy to receive financial support for his education.

“I served for 10 years where I managed radars, communications and weapons systems," he said. "I deployed five times, two of which were to Iraq."

Contreras participated in various missions during his time in service, including anti-terrorist missions, humanitarian missions in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, and counter-narcotic operations.

"Through the job I had, I held a role where a vast percentage of my time was spent protecting the rest of the U.S. and allied forces by shooting down incoming missiles, rockets and mortars,” he said.

SMC is trying to make the transition from the armed forces to the academic environment a smooth one for veterans, according to Linda Sinclair, faculty leader of the VRC.

“We want this to be a place where they can come and feel safe,” Sinclair said. “We want our veterans to know about the services that are available with the Disabled Students Program and Services."

Contreras said he is grateful for the school's accommodations for veterans.

“My professors for this semester have been extremely gracious in allowing me to miss class days to attend this opportunity," he said. "Overall, my education and experiences at SMC have set me on a path that looks bright.”

Eva UnderwoodComment