According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), 99 percent of Americans have seen some form of combat on television, yet only 1 percent have seen it in Iraq or Afghanistan.
For most of us, we may be touched by the stories we see on TV, or outraged by the violence that goes on overseas. But for those who haven't been in combat, it's impossible to truly know what it's like to be in a war -- or even more difficult, in some cases -- coming home from battle.
Troops face a job market in which civilian employers rarely understand or appreciate military skills and experience. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are already turning up on the streets much faster than other generations of veterans, often within 18 months of coming home, according to IAVA. And over time, the signature wounds of current conflicts -- psychological wounds and traumatic brain injuries -- may contribute to higher rates of homelessness.
Executive Director and Founder of IAVA Paul Reickhoff and Director of Government Affairs for IAVA Todd Bowers spoke to the Huffington Post about their own experiences reintegrating into civilian life -- and shared the insights they've gained listening to the stories of so many others as advocates for young veterans.
"I was amazed by how many people asked me how many people I killed," says Bowers. "That's not how I look at it at all. It's about the people I save."
Reickhoff mentioned that he appreciates being told "thank you for your service," but would love people to take it a step further: "When you see a soldier in uniform ask them where they're going. Engage with them."
We compiled the stories of veterans, military nurses and caretakers who took the time to share their personal experiences. Here's what they had to say.
Justin served on active duty in the Marine Corps from 1997-2004 and joined the Reserves in 2005. He is now a Marine Corps Reserves Major. In 2006 he deployed to Iraq as a Civil Affairs team leader and led a team of eight marines and one navy corpsman. They were attached to a Marine infantry battalion in Al-Anbar Province in an area called Habbaniyah, which is halfway between Fallujah and Ramadi. Six weeks into the deployment Justin was shot in the head by a sniper. The bullet entered behind his left ear and out his mouth. He gives thanks for being alive to the amazing courage and skill of Corpsman George Grant. Justin put a lot of pressure on himself when he came back to the U.S. He suffered from "Survivors Guilt" because he was safe and sound and his Marines were still in Iraq. That guilt has stayed with me, but to a much lesser degree," Justin says. "I am very self-conscious about how I look and talk due to my injuries, although I am constantly trying to move past that." Thanks to his wife, Dahlia, the reintegration process has been much easier. Even though his wife is very supportive it's hard to go out in public because of his injuries. "I don't speak exactly right because I'm missing a lot of my teeth and the end of my tongue because they were blasted out when the bullet went through my head. When people don't understand me it is a constant reminder that of that dark day four years ago. Through the help of the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities Justin and his wife launched Iraq and Back. The company sells patriotic apparel designed for service members who have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, their family members and supportive members of the American public. When asked what civilians could do to support the troops, Justin remarked, "I think civilians could make a more conscientious effort at hiring and supporting veteran businesses. Saying "Thank you" definitely goes a long way, but it is a big jump to go from being in the military to working in the business world.
Michael suffered from an artillery concussion. Because of this injury he has headaches, loss of memory and was diagnosed with PTSD. His injury led him to write a book "Souled Out, A Memoir of War and Inner Peace." His books has been used by several universities and by the VA Vets Center in Milwaukee. "I have dedicated my life to helping soldiers, veterans and families readjust after war," says Michael. He is also the host of an Internet radio program, "Combat PTSD Exposed." He believes in the power of networking and connecting the husbands, wives, children and friends who need help readjusting after war. "It was extremely difficult to reintegrate with family, friends and work. I was divorced shortly after returning home, couldn't stay on a job and tried college, but couldn't concentrate." Michael couldn't fit in so he left the country for a few years to live in the jungles of Africa. He was able to connect with people and restore his life. "Explaining war to civilians is very difficult in actuality. A superficial description of war is easy, a psychological and spiritual description is impossible. I think it's similar to a woman who has been pregnant and given birth. It's nearly impossible to fully explain or express the psychological experience to someone else who hasn't been through it. She might be able to explain the physical experience, but not the emotional or spiritual." When asked what civilians can do to better understand what goes on in war and how to welcome our troops back home, Michael said, "War can be such a devastating/destructive blow to past reality and meaning in life that a soldier needs time to readjust and reestablish a new sense of meaning in life." He is a firm believer in educating ourselves on these topics of readjustment and using every available resource to make this readjustment as quickly as possible.
Marylyn served as a nurse from 1981-1992. When she returned from war she had no family or place to live in Houston, Texas. She had to stay with a boyfriend who had left her and remarried. She bounced around and stayed with friends until she could find a place to live. "I was confused, angry and did not know how to deal with everything I was feeling and experiencing," Marylyn says. "There was no one to talk to!" Marylyn started Women Veterans Business Center because there was no resource for women veterans and military families who desire to start and grow their own business. "Veterans are our nations heroes, they should be economic heroes in our communities also," she says. When asked how best to welcome soldiers home she said, "Acknowledge their service, empathize with their concerns, support them with programs and funding to heal physically, emotionally and to reintegrate!"
Justin was a young, combat Marine, when he was severely wounded by an IED in Iraq. His injuries dictated an end to his military career. Justin struggled significantly with both the physical and psychological consequences of his injuries and combat experience. Even though his military career was over he followed his passion for real estate and started a business in 2008 -- Access Property Management Group. Justin’s company provides comprehensive property and asset management services for real estate owners and investment groups. Through hard work, Justin has built a thriving business. Justin’s success as a business owner is a testament to why military veterans make exceptional entrepreneurs. Justin says that “Entrepreneurship is hope because it offers individuals the opportunity to be rewarded for providing a service or product to society.” He believes that his success paves a path for other veterans, like him, to move forward. When asked what Americans can do to support veterans Justin said, "We all as Americans need to take pride and ownership in this great country, not just veterans. It's all of ours to be responsible for. We are in some tough times, but trials build character and toughness. Now is the time we all need to step up and take ownership."
Stephen was on active duty from 1960 to 1992. He suffered from PTSD through his various assignments. When asked how it was reintegrating with friends and family, Stephen says, "My experience and that of my spouse reflect those e-mailing and blogging now: hard and very difficult to adjust. Glad to be home but nothing fits as it "should." Stephen retrained under VA rehab program to become a licensed mental health and substance abuse counselor. After having a private practice for several years he went on to became a fully state licensed mental health counselor and a state certified chemical dependency counselor, a nationally certified master addictions counselor, certified employee assistance professional, and finally a certified trauma specialist with the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists (ATSS). A few years ago he and a group of veterans across the nation realized that there was no support group for those impacted by PTSD. They decided to start a non-governmental, non-agency and non-secular group, PTSDA. "We chose to focus on encouraging our vets, returnees, family members and significant others to use their talents, motivation, training and military experiences to take a lead in helping themselves," Stephen says. When asked what civilians can do to appreciate the returning soldiers he said, "Regardless of service component or deployment, these troops fully deserve your recognition of their service and their need for services and community level assistance not only for their reintegration to community life, but to continue to be the professional and productive assets to our nation and our communities that they really are! They are not a part of the problems in our society but leaders and those determined to remain an active part of the eventual improvement of our nation." Stephen was not treated with the respect that he felt he deserved when he returned. When he returned home people yelled, hit and threw red paint on him. "Destroyed army uniforms are one thing but the lack of public support lasted years until the change for our very worthy veterans and their families involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF).
Christy takes care of her husband a 22-year old Army Veteran who suffers from PTSD. She also works directly with the wounded warriors at Fort Knox Kentucky. Christy has been dealing with PTSD for the past two years. She says, "Nothing is ever the same again after deployment. PTSD is a very persistent and misunderstood problem. I spent hours/days researching PTSD so I could figure out how to help my soldier." Many families have expectations about what the soldier is going to be like when they return home. The one thing that is absolutely true about those expectations is that they are all wrong. This is the time when your husband, wife, daughter, son or friend needs you most. They need your support, but also the support of the medical community. Caring for a combat Veteran with PTSD is a 24-hour job. One of the hardest parts of it all is getting them to admit that they need help. We have to remove that stigma so that they get the help that they need without the fear of repercussion.
Organizations are popping up all over the nation to help war veterans and their loved ones cope. Here are some and if you know of any others please feel free to share in the comments below. United States Department of Veteran Affairs Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Women Veterans Business Center The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) Social Networks: CaringBridge Ning Inc