The Deane Foundation recently visited Clarksville, Tennessee. Clarksville and Montgomery county are great places to live – public schools in the top tier of the state, low cost of living, youthful population and vibrant economy. We learned about the heart that people have here for bridging the gaps that exist – gaps between military and civilian cultures and between rural and urban cultures that are foundational for community life here.
Clarksville is the fifth largest city in Tennessee with a population of over 170,000. Situated on the banks of the Cumberland River and straddling the border with Kentucky, Clarksville has its historical roots in the tobacco industry, trade and bastions of the Confederate army early in the Civil War era. The fortunes of Clarksville today rise and fall largely with nearby Ft. Campbell, Austin Peay State University (“APSU”), and a growing industrial manufacturing base.
Military and Civilian Life Co-Exist
Ft. Campbell is the third largest army base in the country and home of the 101st Airborne Division. The base stations roughly 30,000 soldiers, 300-600 of whom are “out-processed” into Clarksville civilian life each month. Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan says that “Ft. Campbell is one of the most requested final bases for recruits and officers alike, and Clarksville is one of the top retirement destinations for veterans in the country,” largely based on favorable economics and on Clarksville’s reputation as a welcoming community.
Military culture shapes the adult lives of most veterans who enter into service at a young age. As a result, the transition to civilian life can pose significant challenges, particularly for soldiers. Yet Mayor McMillan, Montgomery County Mayor Jim Durrett, Clarksville Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melinda Shepard, and APSU’s President Alisa White were unanimous in their assessment that veterans are universally welcomed into the community because most have strong technical skills and a desire to contribute to community life.
“Soldiers coming out of military service are an attractive work force. They are drug free, highly trained, highly adaptable and more often than not have strong leadership skills. They need skill training in civilian professions but they are highly trainable,” says Mayor Durrett. “We do need a bridge to help out-processed soldiers with cultural realignment, such as apprenticeship programs. The Army pays the soldier for six months prior to discharge to get training for civilian life. If we could create a vehicle that would take advantage of that six months to help the soldier transition, we would have a built in, highly trained work force.”
Yet evidence shows that crossing the bridge from military to civilian life poses a bigger challenge. We learned that economic stagnation, professional monotony, social isolation and depression lead to heavy use of mental health resources and community-based philanthropic programs by veterans. Surprisingly low civic engagement and voter turnout also point to challenges that the community faces to reach its full potential.
APSU: Drilling Down on Challenges Faced by Veterans Entering Civilian Life
Carol Clark, Director of Community & Business Relations at APSU, arranged for us to spend time with APSU President White; Alexandra Wills and Emily Seeney from the vibrant Center for Service-Learning and Community Engagement Office; Frank Bunner and others from the Student Health Office; and Lantz Smith from the local non-profit Soldiers And Families Embraced (“SAFE”). We discussed the ways in which APSU works to support veterans and other non-traditional students that constitute the majority of the student body on campus.
We learned that APSU serves roughly 10,000 students, 23% of whom are active duty military, veterans, family of active duty military, or family of veterans of the U.S. military. Second, a significant proportion of students are non-traditional or represent the first generation from their families to seek a college education. Military, non-traditional and first-generation college students, in general, lack the preparation and family support that characterize the student bodies of most four-year universities. Finally, 80% of full-time students receive some form of needs-based financial aid.
Challenges to veterans adapting to civilian life are many. First, many come out of the military lacking “soft” skills, such as the ability to relate well in a job interview and contextual empathy in civilian settings. Second, while the cost of living in Clarksville is low compared with the nationwide average, civilian pay in competitive markets is low compared to military pay, and most veteran benefits do not adequately cover costs associated with transitioning to higher paying jobs. Third, many jobs in the manufacturing sector lack variety and purposefulness, leaving veterans feeling adrift and increasingly isolated over time.
At APSU, significant resources have been put in place to support the transition to civilian life for those who enroll either as full-time or as part-time, online or other non-traditional mechanisms. A highly engaged faculty, a lower than average student/faculty ratio, a military student center with social and practical offerings, including a thrift store, food bank, community garden, chicken coop and student health center, support the success of students from military and other non-traditional and first-generation backgrounds.
Healthcare Access: Mental Health Particularly Challenging for Veterans
A particular challenge for veterans in Clarksville, as across the nation, is a ballooning number of chronically debilitating complex mental health issues, including severe depression and suicide. Lantz Smith, Executive Director of SAFE, describes a situation that easily overwhelms community-based resources. For veterans, Lantz says that only about 5% of the cases are related to the things you read about like PTSD and bipolar disorder. “The problems we see are more chronic and stress-related, cycles that could be short-circuited by medical intervention in combination with occupational therapy.” However, clients face waiting periods of over three months to gain access to mental health professionals in Montgomery county. “We have only one mental health professional licensed to prescribe for every 610 people in the county,” lamented Lantz, “well below the nation’s top performers at 1 per 360 people, and so we are falling increasingly behind in caring for them.” The average number of citizens per licensed mental health worker is 780:1.
While active duty service members can receive excellent health care at the Army base, health care for the city of Clarksville and surrounding areas is provided by the single, for-profit hospital. U.S. News and World Reports Rankings of hospitals across the country scores Clarksville’s Tennova Hospital below 35 on a scale of 1 -100 across all subspecialties and average or below average on all measures of adult procedures offered. Assessing this situation for Montgomery County, County Mayor Jim Durrett said “I believe that competition drives higher quality, so I’m not at all satisfied with the healthcare system that exists here in Montgomery County.” As a result of poor local access, those in critical need end up seeking their health care in Nashville, over an hour’s drive away.
In short, Clarksville is a growing city, a top retirement destination for veterans and other retirees, and an increasingly vibrant bedroom community within commuting distance of the booming Nashville metropolis. Veterans present the city with vibrancy but also with significant challenges that this city has the heart to embrace.
Published on August 14, 2018 3:53pm
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