LOS ANGELES, Calif. - As a young infantry officer candidate, Nathan Graeser experienced the death of his best friend, Brett Hershey, with whom he had joined the Indiana National Guard along with two of their high school lacrosse teammates. It was a devastating loss for Graeser, but he saw that his friends who had deployed to Afghanistan with Hershey were faring far worse.
"It was my first experience with combat, with looking in someone's eyes and saying, 'You guys look really different,'" said Graeser, who had stayed stateside to complete Officer Candidate School while attending Indiana University. "They were getting [charged with driving under the influence] everywhere, all the chaplains were deployed, and no one was helping these guys. It was just, 'Here's your four-month leave.'
"I remember thinking, 'I want to help you guys.' And they said, 'That's what chaplains do.'"
Graeser's desire was to help set the young Soldier down a new path that would define his military service as well as his civilian career. He attended Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, where he focused on questions of identity, morality and other issues at the heart of the human experience. But upon graduation, he was unclear how to use his new knowledge to help soldiers.
On a visit to the University of Southern California to view a friend's film, Graeser found the missing piece of the puzzle: USC's new Military Social Work program could bridge his role as a National Guard chaplain and his aspiration to effect positive change in the larger military community.
"At USC, I learned the practical 'hows' - hands-on counseling, application of higher-level values, the differences between military and civilian culture," he said. "I had great tools from seminary, but I didn't know how to apply them. Then at USC, I could see exactly how to apply it."
USC clearly agreed, as the school offered Graeser a position at its Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families (CIR) after he graduated in 2013. For the Defense Department-funded CIR, Graeser oversees the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative, a network of more than 250 organizations and stakeholders that work to identify and resolve the needs of local veterans.
Graeser said he helps those stakeholders "drive the engine" to get information and services to veterans who need them. He directs eight working groups centered around particular topics of need, and he works to inform community groups about the issues facing veterans.
CIR recently finished a major research project, the Los Angeles Veterans Need Survey, which gathered input from 800 veterans. The participants included 400 National Guard Soldiers, who Graeser said are at greater risk of post-deployment troubles than their active component counterparts, because they often return to unemployment and lack the support services offered on active duty bases.
Among other findings, the center discovered that more than half of post-9/11 veterans do not know how to obtain the services offered to veterans, and about 40 percent of veterans with mental health conditions are not receiving help. To connect veterans with available services, the LA Veterans Collaborative spearheaded the creation of online resource database www.LAVeteransPortal.com.
"My arm [of CIR] works with agencies to make sure we have leads to apply the research; otherwise it's just ivory tower people writing reports," said Graeser, who is a captain in the California Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 144th Field Artillery Regiment. "We should be writing policy and adjusting programs based on this data."
At an early Veterans Collaborative meeting, while Graeser was still a student at USC, Mark Mitchell was intrigued by the "kid" who seemed to be the only chaplain social worker in the room. Mitchell, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Catholic school Loyola Marymount University, said Graeser introduced him to the concept of "moral injury" - the acknowledgement that one has violated their own moral code, and they require healing.
"From my point of view there was no real strong Catholic voice in helping vets with moral injury or [post-traumatic stress] ... and the church needed... to do something," Mitchell said.
Mitchell decided he would be the one to do something, and he organized a successful series of panel discussions at the university with Graeser's advice and participation.
"Nate has Midwestern qualities about him. He's not your typical LA guy, and I think it's disarming to some people," Mitchell said. "People listen to him, respect him. Sometimes with a young leader, some of the colonels say, 'I gotta listen to a captain?' But I don't get any of that [about Nate]."
He added that Graeser's ability to unite people from different backgrounds and organizations is invaluable for a community effort that requires many different partners to be effective.
"There's a huge competition for clients and resources with some [organizations], and you go, 'Come on. Let's work together,'" Mitchell said. "With Nate there's not a feeling of a political agenda."
Graeser's civilian job enables him to improve many lives by effecting systemic change, but at the heart of the journey that led him to CIR is his passion for providing spiritual and emotional support to Soldiers as a chaplain. One of Graeser's oldest friends, Capt. Colin Stark of the California Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, said he has experienced firsthand how Graeser's compassion and guidance can benefit a returning Soldier.
"When I came back from Iraq in 2007, I was shut down and jaded and not open to talking about the deployment," said Stark, one of three lacrosse teammates who joined the Indiana National Guard with Graeser 15 years ago. "Nate gave me the space to talk about it and express my feelings. He's been really integral to that process of transitioning back to the civilian world and [working through] things I'd seen over there.
"With what he's done for me and continues to do for others, I know he's going to make a huge impact down there [in Southern California]."