By Rachel Livinal, Art from Ashes Beat Writer
Jesse Soria said Veterans tend to “self-isolate.” A Veteran himself, he said he tends to be “open,” “sociable,” the change he wishes to see.
Soria, 34, enlisted into the U.S. Navy when he was 19 years old. Stationed in San Diego for 5 years, Soria served two deployments as a firefighter on a ship. This biographical timeline is one Soria can lend out, but it isn’t one he sought out, especially when returning back home.
“At one point, while we were in the service, we had a purpose, we had instructions that were given to us, and we did our jobs, and we moved on to the next task,” Soria said. “But then when you get out, you really are by yourself, you really have to figure out a lot of things… You got to find out for yourself, but you got all the skills to do it. You got leadership skills, you got teamwork skills, but you just don’t know how to apply it.”
Isolation and a loss of purpose can impact mental health. According to the Signal Hill Tribune, Soria said many Veterans struggle with PTSD from the service that can carry over into their lives adjusting afterward.
A 2020 survey found that 83% of all US Veterans as well as active duty service members have experienced PTSD in the 21st century. For Soria, he had experienced it even before coming into the service.
The Tribune said, “According to Soria, his own mental health struggles began before he enlisted in the Navy, and stemmed from a childhood marked by financial hardship and housing insecurity.”
Soria’s PTSD issue with isolation did carry out after the service just like many others, and he dealt with it when he decided to further his education at Cal State Long Beach.
“When I was going to college, I just didn’t really feel like I could connect with anybody because I was older than everyone else,” Soria said.
While at the university, Soria and some fellow Veterans, saw a lack of representation at the campus for the Veteran community. Lance Santiago, executive coordinator of People of the Earth, said Soria was at the head of it.
“Jesse at one point, he was trying to organize a hike for Veterans and invited me to join them… And I brought a few of my friends,” Santiago said. “And then next thing, you know, that kind of evolved into us establishing the Student Veterans Club at Cal State Long Beach.
“We took the initiative to go ahead and revamp the Veterans network,” Soria said. “We promoted mental health, social engagement, [career networking and] socially interactive events as well.”
The club only ran for one full semester, with Soria as the president. After that semester, the group graduated, but Soria found that there was still a need for the activism the club had garnered before.
“So I would still get together with the Veterans, go out, get some food, go on a run, or hang out the beach,” Soria said. “And while we were doing that, we were just like, ‘Why don’t we do what we were doing at Cal State Long Beach [in the] Long Beach Community on a larger scale?’”
That’s when Soria decided to establish People of the Earth, a non-profit organization designed to help Veterans and people in Long Beach.
Soria earned his degree in environmental science and policy. This has equipped him with skills to educate others and coordinate activism for the environment and mental health.
“The things that I learned, I’m able to share with my group and the community about why it’s important to be able to cross link both environmental and mental health,” he said. “I saw that there was a need in the Veterans community to also touch bases on the environmental side of it, instead of just the mental focus of PTSD and chronic stress and anxiety… My point of view was that that’s also the environment that we’re in.”
Many organizations have taken a lead in combating climate change and showing environmental activism, but Soria brings something new to the mix: the need for mental health and well-being. The organization’s mission stands out by advocating for mental health awareness as well as environmental stewardship.
He’s been organizing events that incorporate mental health education, environmental awareness and community engagement like the registered run he organized last month. This event in particular had the objective of raising enough money and awareness to hire people for a mental health workshop.
“I see people that are doing pro-active things,” Soria said. “And one of the things that we do as an organization, when people come out to some of our events, we’d like to let them know about how they can make a small step in their daily habit that collectively can have a larger outcome.”
Santiago said Soria has been reaching out to everyone he could, establishing that the organization’s mission is not just to help Veterans, even though it started with them. Soria has managed to break from an identity of what they both say is typical of Veterans, but he wants to make sure that the Veteran and the long beach community can work together.
“Being able to have the community of Long Beach interact in events where Veterans are involved can kind of help them understand [Veterans] a little bit better,” Soria said. “It’s a sensitive community in the sense that it’s a very small population overall so I just feel like connecting them with the community as people of the earth, as all being one together, can give these Veterans a sense of purpose.”
Right now, Soria only has a typical 9-to-5 job while the organization works on the paperwork stages of establishing a 501(c)3. His dreams for the organization revolve around community and a resiliency that can only be created by a community that is just as he is: open and sociable.
“There’s something that you can learn from a Veteran, and there’s something that you can learn from from a regular Long Beach citizen,” Soria said. “So it just works out. I think it’s a perfect combination.”
CityHeART Shoutout to People of the Earth:
Thank you so much to People of the Earth for bringing a 5-day Power of Breath workshop series to our community here at the Villages at Cabrillo!! A dozen people benefitted from this free program, and we are so grateful to your incredible team for putting it on! #VeteransHelpingVeterans