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City of Oceanside prepares for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

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President Barack Obama's announcement that he will pull 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by September will have a significant impact on the San Diego area, especially Oceanside, according to several local leaders who work with veterans.

Because the majority of those returning troops are Marines, many will come back through Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, creating a tsunami of new veterans who at least pass through Oceanside.

About 40 percent of those veterans are likely to stay in Oceanside and the San Diego area, stretching the resources of the local agencies set up to help them transition to their new civilian lives, said Maurice Wilson, a Navy veteran who cofounded the veteran service organization Project REBOOT.

"Some say home is where the heart's at, so they may go back to Wyoming or wherever their home of record is," he said. "But for some, once they've left home, traveled the world and explored different cities, they might have outgrown Wyoming. So they might say San Diego looks more fascinating.

"Through their military service, they've outgrown their home cities and have become so cosmopolitan they don't want to go back home."

Wilson's REBOOT aims to provide a "reverse boot camp" for returning troops to help them make the cultural transition back to civilian life and provide job searching and other life skills. His is one of many local organizations striving to serve returning veterans, and Wilson said the abundance of services they provide can be an impetus for troops to stay in San Diego.

He also said if organizations fail to reach veterans, it can have devastating impacts on the local community.

"If someone gets out and can't fit into the economy, if they're still feeling the impact of being released from service, then they aren't being empowered to be part of society," Wilson said. "If they don't make that transition, it can result in unemployment, homelessness and a whole host of unintended negative consequences."

The Oceanside Police Department is not taking extra steps to prepare for the influx of Marines because it does not anticipate extra problems, said Oceanside police Lt. Leonard Mata.

"We consider them to be good neighbors and good residents, both the people on base and in town," he said. "We don't have a lot of bars, clubs, or stuff in town, so I wouldn't anticipate any particular problems."

But some organizations are ramping up their resources to help the incoming veterans. The county's 24-hour phone service, 2-1-1 San Diego, is bringing on an additional veterans peer specialist to work on "Courage to Call," the veterans' assistance line, said Bill York, 2-1-1's chief operating officer. And while the line originally planned to only have one specialist, it now has two.

San Diego County started "Courage to Call," which partners with Mental Health Systems, Inc., two years ago in direct response to the surge of homecoming troops expected, York said.

He expects to field 26,000 calls from veterans in San Diego County over the next 24 months.

But while the growth in veterans returning to San Diego County will require more resources, York said he thinks local organizations are up to the challenge.

"When you think of San Diego verses other counties, we have a plethora of great resources and a lot of people stepping up," he said. "Everyone is doing more, so I don’t think there will be any lack of resources."

Paul Steffans, the executive director of the San Diego Armed Services YMCA, said his counseling services can handle the current number of returning veterans, but may have to create a waitlist if there is a large influx.

"Right now, we have an adequate number of staff," he said. "For counseling, we don't have a waitlist. If there's a significant jump when a whole battalion comes back and a lot of issues come up, we might develop a waitlist. But right now we're capable of handling our current load with some expansion."

York agreed that the availability of resources encourages people to stay. For example, he said, very few other regions have a designated peer line for veterans to call.

The other determining factor in whether veterans will stay, he said, is the availability of jobs. If jobs are not available, veterans will be more likely to return home, or worse, he said, become frustrated.

"If people are being pushed out of the military, are not being renewed, or are not allowed to re-up with good records, then that’s where you start seeing anger issues," he said. "They had a great career, but are not allowed to continue and retire. That's frustrating."

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