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A Marine veteran stands with their arms folded across their chest, wearing a camo jacket. The words SAN and MARINES are visible on the jacket. In the background there is a fence with blurry trees behind it.

A Commitment to Heal Our Heroes

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A Marine veteran stands with their arms folded across their chest, wearing a camo jacket. The words SAN and MARINES are visible on the jacket. In the background there is a fence with blurry trees behind it.

In any given year, post-traumatic stress (PTS) affects as many as one in five veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

The impact of PTS can be severe and long-lasting, sometimes felt for years on end. Often, the impact is not only felt by the veteran, but their families as well. 

Despite growing awareness of the problem, a lack of treatment enables PTS to continue tearing into veteran families. According to one study, less than half of veterans who need mental health services receive any treatment at all. 

A deep connection to veteran families

A former Marine Corps engineer, Tess Banko has experienced PTS first hand after being subjected to military sexual trauma (MST). She also suffered a devastating permanent back injury that led to a tumultuous return to civilian life, and lost her husband to suicide while he was deployed in 2003. 

Today as executive director of the UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center (VFWC), Banko brings her own life experience coupled with behavioral health education to a groundbreaking new program. “The VA is primarily funded only for individual veterans’ care,” Banko says. “There’s a small component for caregivers and the children of deceased veterans, but as far as the wider population of families, children and significant others … there are no funded services through the VA system.” 

Banko’s team provides services that build skills for communication, parenting, family resilience, relationship building, and successfully navigating trauma and transitions. The program is based on FOCUS (Families Overcoming Under Stress), which has been pioneered at over 30 active duty military bases. The VFWC represents the first time that FOCUS has been fully adapted and customized for the veterans and families population.

“It’s been a real delight to see small children walking through the hallways,” Banko says. “Children that are barely learning to walk, pregnant girlfriends coming in with their veteran boyfriends … being a veteran, this effort means a lot to me.”

Healing the wounds of war

Octavio Sanchez is a former staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and a father of four. While deployed in Ramadi, Iraq, on June 16, 2005, Sanchez’s platoon was coming back from a patrol when an IED exploded underneath his vehicle. Sanchez survived, but suffered third-degree burns on 70 percent of his face and body. 

Before arriving at the VA Greater Los Angeles, he was told there was nothing more that could be done for him. Sanchez was then referred to UCLA’s Operation Mend, a program that provides state-of-the-art cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, as well as mental health care, for wounded warriors, free of charge. 

The Operation Mend team, comprised of a vast array of experts in neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and integrative medicine, brought a new level of knowledge and possibility to Octavio Sanchez and his family. 

Sanchez underwent several reconstructive surgeries, drastically altering his appearance. "I can go out, I feel more comfortable,” Sanchez says. “It's just boosting my confidence up a whole lot more ... I'll always be grateful to Operation Mend.”

Basic training for a different kind of venture

Veterans have some of the most transferable job skills imaginable, including leadership, problem solving and management. But navigating a career change is tough for anyone, and it can be especially difficult for veterans with a disability.

A program in the UCLA Anderson School of Management offers training and guidance to apply these skills to a new endeavor: starting a business. 

The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities includes a nine-day residency, a 30-day online curriculum and 12 months of ongoing mentorship from faculty experts. Veterans receive training in every aspect of starting and running a business, from marketing to hiring and legal issues. They meet with successful entrepreneurs and build connections with other veterans in the program. Many go on to employ other veterans and launch businesses that become a part of the fabric of their communities. 

Each and every veteran has made a commitment — to their nation and to their community. UCLA honors veterans with a commitment of its own. Spanning the entire campus, taking shape in over 100 programs and initiatives, it’s a commitment to open every new advancement in knowledge, education, healthcare and research to veterans. UCLA’s commitment is a model for the nation; proof that knowledge can make an extraordinary difference in the lives of veterans and their families.