Assemblywoman Susan A. Bonilla (D-Concord), named Denver Mills as the 11th California State Assembly District 2012 Veteran of the Year.
Mills founded and serves as chairman of the executive board of East Bay Stand Down, providing assistance to veterans in need. He was founding president of the Cal Veterans and Military Affiliated Alumni Group and facilitates weekly groups at the Concord Vet Center for veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan.
His concern and compassion for fellow veterans was a motivation to earn advanced degrees in psychology and social psychology at UC Berkeley, and study at UC Santa Barbara, and Newport University following active duty in the U.S. Navy from 1966-1970.
Honorably discharged as a Radioman Third Class, his service included one-and-a-half-years in Guam prior to service in Vietnam as an adviser to Vietnamese small boat operations.
"When the vets came home, so many had such severe problems," Mills said. "I also lost a close family member near the time I returned. He died because of high risk behaviors caused by this wartime experience.
"It's very common. They die in car accidents, fights or motorcycle accidents. They feel they will not die because they have survived the war," Mills explained.
Since college, Mills has worked to help veterans understand and recover from the physical and mental wounds of war.
"When I was at Santa Barbara, one of my advisers
Working for the VA since 1985, Mills has been a therapist and director of special programs for the treatment of combat-related Post-traumatic stress disorder and most recently, served as team leader at the Department of Veterans Affairs Concord Vet Center.
Today's returning veterans react to combat in ways similar to those of past wars, but how post traumatic stress syndrome cases are treated is different, Mills said.
"The difference is the awareness of it and the willingness to see themselves them as a symptom of their experience as a type of wound, an emotional wound," he said. "The department is doing an excellent job of working with them on resilience and the public understanding of it too, and not making the mistakes they made in the past."
New, less customary methods include events such as East Bay Stand Down, K-9 and equine therapy, sweat lodges, prayers, mediation, energy work and tai chi.
"I have always tried to go outside the box," Mills said. "There is a wounding to the soul that needed to be addressed, too. The faith community has been very helpful and public support means a lot."
There are new groups doing good work for veterans, but traditional veterans' organizations are the first line that people should look to support veterans, he said. "They are established and know what to do."
He notes that public support for veterans is much greater than when he first started, Mills said, "It is a joy to me."
When asked what else is needed, he said, "If you have a friend (who needs help) direct them to the VA or help organizations. It seems that the vets will be naturally reluctant to discuss things with people who have not been there."
Another issue is bereavement.
"It has been pretty difficult working with families who have lost children," Mills said. "We are not turning away from the vets, but we are sometimes ignoring the families who had family member killed. We can regain that (veteran's) trust by doing the right thing now by making sure that everyone who is touched by war now is not forgotten."
Mills is a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Veterans, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley, and is on the founding board of directors for Returning Veterans of America.
"Denver has been an invaluable resource to the veteran community in Contra Costa County and across California," said Bonilla. "We are honored to recognize Denver for his continued service to our country and all of our fine service men and women."
East Bay Stand Down is coming up Sept. 13-16, at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, focusing on meeting the needs of homeless and needy veterans. About 450 Bay Area veterans attended last year, according to Mills.
Government agencies, nonprofits and community volunteers assemble all of the services that a veteran and his or her family may need. Tents are set up to offer food, shelter, clothing, health screenings, VA and Social Security benefits counseling, and referrals to a variety of other necessary services, such as housing, employment and substance abuse treatment.
Contact Dana Guzzetti at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 925-202-9292.