UCLA’s Veteran Resource Center remains locked and empty, but the center’s members regularly drop into the remote lounge.

The staff of the UCLA-VA Veteran Family Wellness Center haven’t seen their kid-friendly, brightly painted offices since March. But the families they serve know the center still keeps all their appointments though telehealth.

And while the Veterans Law Clinic no longer takes walk-ins, they’re still helping clients win their veteran benefits and remain housed.

UCLA is home to a wide range of veteran-focused programs, and U.S. News and World Report ranked UCLA as the best public college for veterans for four consecutive years. It’s hard to find a single program that didn’t used to meet in person. But even though this year’s Veterans Day will be celebrated from a safe distance, the people and programs supporting veterans continue to serve those who served the country.

“It’s more difficult, but even more important that we serve veterans during this pandemic,” said Tony DeFrancesco, executive director of UCLA’s Veterans Affairs Relations and Programs. “The regular stressors that many veterans face are compounded by the stresses of COVID.”

Veterans can leave service with a host of challenges, like post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, but they can also gain skills from their military service that can make them stronger, which were topics tackled in a recent webinar with Tess Banko, the executive director of the Veteran Family Wellness Center.

The center, housed on the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System’s West Los Angeles campus, provides resilience training not only to veterans but to their entire families. Because the center already offered telehealth as an option, staff had a plan ready within hours of learning that they would begin working off-site, Banko said.

“We’ve tried to build a culture of support virtually,” Banko said. “And it’s important to remember, for veterans but also everyone, that while we face a host of challenges now, there is always the opportunity for growth and success.”

A slate of new partnerships have helped the center direct people to resources like rental assistance and peer support. The center hosted its first virtual wellness and recreation day, but also looks for ways to serve veterans in safe, in-person ways. The center participates in monthly drive-through pantries, where families can remain masked in their car while groceries — and most recently, Halloween candy — are placed in the trunk. Veterans can also sign up for a drive-through toy give-away in December.

Virtual meetups, remote game nights and online workshops 

Closer to home, UCLA’s Veteran Resource Center — formerly an active hub in the center of campus — continues to serve student veterans remotely. Once the pandemic hit, a virtual center sprang to life, where student workers like Navy veteran Shundri Richardson are available during normal office hours. In addition to being available to help other student veterans better understand their benefits, the nursing student is also developing a program of veterans tutoring veterans.

The center’s director, Emily Ives, continues to brainstorm new ways for the center to keep the community connected. Military-connected students could register for a goodie box at the beginning of the academic year. The center has also hosted remote gaming nights, cooking classes, mocktail hours, a back-to-school info session, and workshops on graduate school and law school admissions.

“We’ve always been a place where military-affiliated students can socialize, build community, and receive services that support their academic, personal and career development,” Ives said. “Now we’ve extended the services and support virtually, creating a sense of community online.”

Based at the VA, the UCLA School of Law Veterans Legal Clinic has shifted to provide nearly all of its services remotely, aside from court appearances, which only recently started again. The clinic’s directors and law students focus on helping veterans gain access to benefits from the VA or helping them dismiss minor infractions that, left unpaid, can escalate into thousands of dollars in fines, creating new obstacles to getting housing or a job.

During the pandemic, they’ve continued to help clients, including two who couldn’t overcome barriers to obtaining their veteran benefits until the clinic intervened, and now receive $3,000 per month due to injuries they suffered during their service. One, who was in temporary housing at the VA and struggling with a mental health condition, is now hoping to move into a two-bedroom apartment so he can regain custody of his daughter, said Jeanne Nishimoto, associate director of the clinic.

“That $36,000 a year may sound low to some, but those benefits are life-changing for our clients,” Nishimoto said. “He’s overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s very excited to spend it on things his daughter needs.”

Help with housing 

In reaction to the pandemic, the clinic increased its work related to housing, looking for ways to keep veterans in their homes during shelter-in-place. The clinic also increased its efforts to support veterans facing a range of social justice issues in response to the events of late spring, a nationwide wave of protests and unrest in reaction to the murder of Black men and women by police, said Sunita Patel, the clinic’s faculty director and an assistant professor of law.

“This semester, students are focusing on issues related to reducing criminal penalization of homelessness,” Patel said. “They represent organizational clients, including coalitions of Los Angeles social justice organizations, to research alternatives to policing. Their research will support community proposals to the city council or the county board of supervisors. We want our students to connect the larger structural inequalities veterans face with the important individual client work they perform.”

The law clinic and family wellness center usually participate in the West LA VA’s annual “Stand Down,” a crowded outreach event for veterans attended by many veteran services groups. This year, they’ll participate a different way, by spreading out to seek homeless veterans to make sure they’re aware of nearby services. For those most in need, they’ll offer rideshare tickets to the VA where they can get services safely, said Nicholas Entrikin, chief liaison for UCLA Veteran Affairs. He also highlighted a new program in partnership with UCLA Dining and Village for Vets, providing meals to homeless veterans living in an encampment on the VA grounds.

UCLA’s Operation Mend program, providing medical specialty care and psychiatric care to service members with physical or psychological injuries, was hard-hit by COVID-19, said Dr. Jo Sornborger, director of operations and clinical director. Patient visits had to be canceled, but by May, the psychiatric program began to regroup. Formerly in-person clinical interviews, psychiatry appointments and even group therapy began to take place remotely. The intensive six-week program starts with three weeks of 6-to-8-hour days, making the virtual program especially challenging for patients with children at home, Sornborger said.

“We have transformed our in-person intensive treatment program to 100% virtual so we can treat warriors without having them come to UCLA,” Sorborger said. “That’s been very successful, and our patient outcomes show a reduction in the symptoms of PTSD and depression, and an increase in cognitive function. That means this is a viable model, even post-COVID.”

Nevertheless, the Operation Mend team has been excited to bring back a small number of patients, starting last month. The program now includes sending out-of-state patients a special travel kit to help with sanitation on the plane, and requires quarantine time, COVID testing and symptom monitoring, in addition to other new pandemic practices, Sornborger said.

“The patient need is still there, and may even be higher because the pandemic exacerbates all the stressors,” she said. “These patients stepped up and made it work, and they remind me every day why I do this job.”