One Perspective of Many: The Veteran Transition Process

An Interview with Lito Villanueva

A candid interview with Filipino-American Air Force Veteran Lito Villanueva who founded Battle Buddy, a mental health support network for veterans.

If you’re interested contributing to our project in any capacity, email join.ifme@gmail.com!

Content warning: PTSD, alcoholism, and suicide

Photo of Lito Villanueva

Tell us about yourself!

Hey there! My name is Lito. I’m a veteran of the US Air Force, and I’ve worked in IT and network engineering for a bajillion years.

I decided to start my own business called Battle Buddy after the Air Force, where we help veterans transition out of military service into civilian life by figuring out the complexities of the transition process in a broader perspective.

We’re finding a way to positively change the process for the better and it has been quite a challenge so far. We’re slowly making our way through our business model and we’re learning a lot as we go!

What are some misconceptions about serving in the military and being a veteran?

The first one is sameness. People tend to forget that everyday people go into military service. They come from all sorts of backgrounds. When service members leave, they try to go back to being everyday people.

I think people tend to associate the term “veteran” and “military service member” with a particular demographic and cultural mindset, and that’s a little unfair. We’re individuals too. The military is diverse like the country it serves. Service members come from different walks of life.

Image of American soldiers by U.S. Army Reserve

Second, it’s not easy being a veteran and the veteran experience is incredibly nuanced and diverse. There are a lot of changes when we get out (of military service), and the organizations currently dealing with transition problems haven’t been receiving enough help.

What is the transition process like?

The individuals who joined the military for their own personal reasons have just as many reasons for getting out of service. Maybe they got injured and had to separate. Maybe they were able to retire! Maybe they didn’t support the mission of the military anymore as time went on. Maybe they just didn’t make rank. If you fail to progress to the next enlisted or officer rank, more than likely you are forced to leave service within a designated time frame.

There are multitudes of different separation conditions. In the same manner, not everyone goes through the same transition process. Some may have a job lined up and a place to live. Others may be dumped at the airport and left to fend for themselves to figure out what to do for the next 18 months. Some may pursue an education utilizing their Post 9/11 GI Bill, or Forever GI Bill, but even that is difficult.

Veterans are going to college and university more than ever. The rate of graduation, however, of accomplishing a four-year degree, hasn’t shown a stronger correlated rate of return. Simply put, veterans start school but don’t finish.

What is BattleBuddy trying to do? How’s it going to help?

We’re looking to reach out to organizations and individuals, who have already made tremendous progress within the community: the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), the United Service Organization (USO), Veterans of Foreign War (VFW), the American Legion (AL). At our local Las Vegas Veteran Engagement Council, the pillars of support are broken into four categories: Transition, Employment, Education, and Wellness. This is how we roughly divide interests in the umbrella of the transition process. It’s not perfect, but there has been progress.

Each of the aforementioned organizations has done incredible amounts of work over recent years to rectify transition issues. From the tech industry, manufacturing, and logistics in the private sector, these organizations have improved skill retraining programs, job search assistance, non-profit mentorships, résumé building, family and home care, and eased the path to access higher education.

I may be speaking a bit biased here in Las Vegas, but these resources really help to transition service members. University of Nevada Las Vegas’ (UNLV) Rebel Vet organization has already helped us immensely, and we’re looking to give back! Many organizations have barriers between other organizations, but we’re slowly breaking them down and re-establishing communication using the services we’ve developed.

Our biggest focus on the pillars of support is wellness. Physical health, emotional health, and spiritual health fall under this category. Two out of those three categories are often addressed pretty well. We tend to follow the same habits of going to the gym and if you’re religious, church.

Image of American soldiers hugging by Wikimedia Commons

This is normally the point in which we talk about mental health, but we have to tread carefully when talking about it. We have to give it some context — some background before we can continue.

One of the stigmas we face when we say “Veterans and Mental Health” is hastily equated to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That’s a substitution fallacy. I can’t speak more on PTSD professionally, as I’m not a qualified psychologist or occupational therapist, but what I can say is that the subject of PTSD has been carefully studied and that the problem exists, just don’t extrapolate it to all veterans.

There is a weak correlation of suicide risk from deployed and non-deployment military service members and veterans.

There are numerous factors that contribute to mental health degradation, often before veterans even realize it, and we seek to address the issues that cause problems to culminate in the first place. Mental health issues are a broad subject to discuss, and there are a majority of factors that are involved in seeking help and assistance. We believe having a place to talk to someone in a comfortable setting and share your similar experiences with each other goes a long way in helping fight mental health stressors that affect your psyche; as they say, it’s a lot easier when you have a friend to help you out. You can’t always do it alone.

The last misconception I want to discuss is community involvement. This is for the veteran that is getting out, who may not realize all the resources available to you.

We as a public, generally think there is a large community of individuals assisting veterans getting out of service. There is a community, but, as a veteran who has gone through the process, and after interviewing many recently separated veterans, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. The resources are there, but, due to a myriad of different factors, veterans don’t utilize the services available to them. There’s a strange “veteran imposter syndrome’” that I speak about extensively on the Veteran Stigma page of Battle Buddy, and even now, it’s embarrassing for me to talk about with other veterans.

There are a lot of different challenges ahead when you’re out of service and it can be difficult to do it alone. I say “alone” because before you (as a veteran) realizes it, you are alone. The group of friends, co-workers, and people closest to you often disappear. Often times, you lose that sense of camaraderie and the sense of purpose and shared mission you agreed to when you leave service. The community you once belonged to disappears and you slowly realize that you relied on that community — a lot more than you think.

Here’s is a story, one perspective, of what it might be like for a soon-to-be separated service member.

What are mental health resources available for folks currently serving in the military and for veterans?

There’s a lot out there! Chaplaincy while you’re in, is an amazing service and I do believe they calm a troubled spirit quite well. The preexisting cultural barriers of mental health stigmas are slowly going away while in service thanks to leadership pushing it in the right direction. Find a good leader. Hopefully it’s your direct NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer), or your supervisor, but otherwise just look around.

A compassionate friend, wingman, shipmate, battle-buddy, etc., is great to have too. It doesn’t always have to be unnecessarily masculine talks either. Be authentic with one another; it takes a bigger person to admit their weaknesses.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, I mentioned previously, is a great resource to start with once you’re out. Again, one of the problems we find is there are many veterans who don’t know about the services offered, or if they do know about them, they don’t use them. Veterans mostly believe it’s ineffective, stigmatizing, or grossly invasive. There’s definitely a LOT of shocking questions they’ll ask you while you’re going through a routine physical check-up. That’s okay. Still go anyways. Start the process. Maybe you don’t want that label on your record, but it doesn’t hurt to check out whenever there’s an event going on where vets are talking among themselves. The VA is a welcoming place and a lot of the older veterans like seeing the young-ins and love to share war stories.

When you’re in the service you feel like you might not need these resources at all. It’s sometimes hard to comprehend that you might not have all those resources (food, lodging, hospital care, community, camaraderie, shared purpose) readily available to you once you have transitioned out. And when you do transition out, it’s immensely harder to reflect and realize that you’re not mentally well. It’s hard to realize that you’re not being you. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have some pretty awesome friends to keep a watch on you and willing to reconnect when you leave the service. Sometimes it just takes a friend to tell it to your face you’re not being yourself and that something’s wrong with you.

On a side note, thank you for those friends that have told me that repeatedly. Seriously, you guys are the best. The real MVPs.

Are these resources helpful?

Genuinely, and generally, yes. There’s still a problem of getting veterans to those resources because there’s also another problem — it’s hard to stick to it! Seriously! There are different challenges involved in civilian life. Whether that’s mental health, going back to school, or finding a job.

“Finding a job?” you may ask. Yeah! That’s difficult for veterans. The catch-22 of getting a job is that it requires relevant experience but getting experience requires a job. It’s not easy translating military Enlisted Performance Reports (EPRs) to a resume. And did I forget to mention school is hard!?

There are so many veterans nowadays that take advantage of their GI Bill, but only a few finish school. I think this is my third time going back to school. The Student Veterans of America (SVA) is a great resource.

I strongly urge that all vets check out your local SVA or SVO (Student Veterans Organization) chapters. They’re awesome. Outside of that, start doing research about the services offered in your local community.

If you are a veteran, service member, civilian contractor, federal employee, aid worker, or any other category that I haven’t listed but have gone through the struggles of “fitting back in” with home after deployment, please, take a look at this resource.

What is it like for you dealing with mental health as a veteran and as a Filipino-American?

Personally, I’ve been to Afghanistan and a variety of HAZ/ISO locations overseas. HAZ/ISO refers to Hazardous/Isolated which is usually indicating adverse living and work conditions. As a result, we get a pay increase.

I’ve had my own struggles to deal with when it comes to PTSD. I’m a strong believer that everyone who goes overseas comes back a bit different. It’s kind of hard to admit because I wasn’t in service by the time I went overseas; I was already a contractor doing IT work. So you kind of just suck up whatever happens afterward as a consequence. It’s hard to open up about still, even today. I would never want any others having to face the difficulty that I went through. Having to suffer silently, or being too embarrassed to admit there was a problem. That’s why I’m doing this now: for some unknown veteran that may need it.

Being Filipino-American… I mean there are some comments I could make about being an immigrant and say how there are significant challenges that we all face. But the beauty of the military was that regardless of whatever challenge you’re encountering, you get through it. Because you have to. You set aside all of your petty squabbles and infighting to get the mission done, even if you don’t like the people you work with. Because your team depends on you and you depend on them. You were unified under a common mission and that mission needed to get done.

It’s a job like any other, and you’ll have your daily stressors and in-fighting — but it’s a job unlike any other paradoxically. When you’re in uniform, you try to focus on doing your job to the best of your ability while you’re part of this humongous, working machine. It may not seem like it, but the military does a really good job of breaking barriers and cultural stigmas — between the diverse backgrounds everyone comes from. The resulting level of unit cohesion is remarkable. When you’re in service, you’re focused on your training, your job and working together towards a common goal with your team. It’s strange to see the unconscious biases permeate the “rest of the world” when you get out of the service because it didn’t seem like much of an issue while you were in.

When service members get out, they may have the “us vs them” mentality that may have stemmed from being in different branches. That really isn’t the case. We all try to look out for each other in some capacity, regardless of branch of service or military separation circumstances. There are people and organizations that may feel like it’s better to continue to argue over small differences but that’ll eventually go away when they realize how much they’re alienating others. It doesn’t help a veteran who may be looking for assistance when they’re getting ineffective and suboptimal referrals.

Especially on social media nowadays: A lot of the brotherly and sisterly fighting between the branches — the petty name-calling and demeaning ad hominem — gets misconstrued to think we’re taking it seriously and escalating the divisiveness at an exponential rate. Those social media groups that espouse hate between branches are “fake news” (if I had to use a more recent term). In reality, our humor is just a bit more morbid. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still think Marines eat rocks but damn are they the most loyal and steadfast people you’ll ever meet down range. It doesn’t help that I, almost basically, sat in the chair(force) all day. It’s alright, I can take it.

But really, I do wish people get off their chats, text messages, Tumblr threads, Twitter subtweets, Reddit threads, message boards, chans, etc., and talk more in-person to one another again. There’s just something more real about it.

Can you tell us more about Battle Buddy?

There’s a lot I still can’t say, but what I can say is that it’s a product and service designed to address all of those problems I listed: Lack of community, mental health stressors, social stigma. We get amazing training when we get into military service but we need that same prehabilitation for getting out of service.

We’re focusing Battle Buddy at the time during the transition process itself, a process we seek to change. This is where we feel we can do the most good. You’re no longer a civilian, or a service-member anymore, you’re a bit of both. Something…more. You’re a veteran. We want to foster a community and culture that recognizes this difference. Trying to transition to a life post-military is tough, and we’re here to help. We’re all here to help — to get you through the transition process into whichever path is right for you.

We’ve learned that going it alone is hard. And that’s normally not by choice to do it alone, so we’ll try to match you with someone that’s right for you. Someone you can vibe with. We’ve learned that preventative mental health tips follow the same pattern of wellness as preventative physical health training, so you need to get on a regimen. Going outside and getting some sun and a quick workout is as good as finding people you can talk to that understands you.

And hopefully, if things go well and this product takes off, you’ll have a community that can really “watch your six”. I know it’s corny to say but I’m telling you right now, corny is what we aim for. We really do want people to crack jokes when they’re using the product itself, it’s how we designed it. But also understand we’re serious about our commitment to product and service excellence. As long as people are willing to put in the effort, they’ll get something pretty awesome back through our project!

Do you want to give any shoutouts you want to give to individuals or organizations that mean a lot to you?

Yes! Thanks to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), the UNLV’s Rebel Vet organization, and their SVA chapter. Thank you specifically to Ross Bryant, Director of the Military & Veterans Service Center at UNLV, who always had an open door to meet with me, even though I wasn’t a UNLV student, and had first introduced me to the LV Veteran Engagement Council in the first place. Thank you as well to Leith Martin, Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Lee Business School at UNLV, for guiding me down the right path through modern iteration processes.

Thank you to Maggi Molina and Rick Rein of Operation Code (Opcode), a non-profit, veteran-owned organization that assists veterans in getting the skills and training they need to transition into a career of software and web development. Both Maggi and Rick had helped me identify universal problems that veterans face during the early stages of this process. I hang around on Opcode’s public Slack and they have a strong sense of community involvement and shared purpose.

Thank you to the team that’s currently working with me on Battle Buddy, who has dedicated a portion of their best working years to join me in this endeavor: Linette, Bill, Aaron, Jesse. Thank you all. There are multitudes of other individuals that existed that I want to give a shout out to but then this portion would be too long.

Lastly, thank you to my parents for their unwavering support in the things that I do, even though it’s not really the path they may have wanted me to take. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Any final thoughts?

There are a lot of things you learn when you’re at war. You try your hardest to research, learn, and explain what drove us to this edge where people must fight over territory, power, and land. You may ask why you’re overseas in the first place and be a tool for someone else. Maybe your reason that it’s just the way the world works. Maybe it’s just unexplainable.

I read a quote once, somewhere, that the world naturally ends with fighting and entropy. If there is peace, there is an individual working their hardest to keep the peace.

Sometimes they fail.

I’ve learned we can’t bear it alone. We need to share the weight and help those who are struggling around us and feel afraid to reach out. We have to do it, as others cannot.

Every day we have challenges that test our resolve. The day-to-day stresses can be overwhelming. Sometimes, all you want to do is give up.

Sometimes we fail.

But we still keep going. We cannot give up. Because we have to.

Veterans, you have no excuse to not help your fellow priors. You have no excuse to give up. You’ve been trained. You’ve been part of something bigger than yourself. We must work hard to keep the peace. So quit your griping and complaining. It is tough, but we are strong.

Now, we just get going.

“The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful. That’s a much better idea than small thinking and horrible ideas.”
- Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria

Huge thanks to Lito for being so honest and candid with us, thank you for your work. We’re excited to see Battle Buddy continue to grow! You can share your mental health experiences in a safe and private space on our website if-me.org. Stay awesome and strong as always 💜

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