Every veteran who has served in combat knows of the bone-chilling fear of being trapped outside the wire.
There was relative safety inside the perimeter, whether it was in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, but you were vulnerable outside the line. You knew if you were caught in no man's land, somebody was coming to get you or die trying. That was certain. No one was left behind.
This is what I learned in the Marine Corps and the organization I now lead, United States Veterans Initiative (U.S.VETS), practices it every day: no veteran is left behind.
When I served as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam in 1968, the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder hadn't been coined and Agent Orange was still considered a harmless defoliant. Veterans suffering the devastating effects of both -- and their cold greeting when they returned home -- turned to each other for help.
After I was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1971, I started following the vet-to-vet movement in Los Angeles as a filmmaker. This is when I met a group of Soviet combat veterans -- who had served in Afghanistan -- that helped me understand the universality of the problems faced by all men and women who return home from combat.
When Soviet troops began returning from combat in Afghanistan, they faced similar issues, exacerbated by the fact their government never even publicly acknowledged its involvement in the fighting.
The Soviet veterans of Afghanistan reached out to U.S. Vietnam veterans and I documented it in the film Heart of the Warrior. I accompanied a Soviet soldier back to Afghanistan and an American to Vietnam. The issues they faced returning from war were identical.
Drawn to the struggle, I decided to devote my career to the veterans movement. I got my MSW and began helping U.S.VETS grow into what it is today. That was 19 years ago. One of the vets I helped off the street, Linda Miles-Celistan, is now on our board of directors.
It's clear our mission has never been more vital.
For many veterans returning from war, the battle is far from over. Diego Villalobos and Joseph Perez-Marchese, veterans and students at Santa Monica College, returned from combat changed men, as did fellow student and vet Calvin Lock. All three suffered from PTSD and grappled with their problem alone until they connected with a year-old U.S.VETS program that we call Outside the Wire.
"The whole idea is to work with this younger generation so that they don't develop chronic mental health problems," said Dr. Todd Adamson, the clinical psychologist who heads up Outside the Wire. "Substance abuse, poor family relationships, divorce -- that's what we're trying to inoculate with this program."
U.S.VETS, with 11 locations in six states and the District of Columbia, is now the largest nonprofit in the nation serving homeless and at-risk veterans.
We are but one of many organizations devoted to helping vets. As we are reminded on a much too frequent basis, the problems are huge.
• More than 75,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.
• 1.5 million veterans live in poverty.
• 300,000 veterans of Iran and Afghanistan are returning home with Post Traumatic Stress or Traumatic Brain Injuries.
• Nearly 30 percent of recently returned veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are unemployed.
• 18 veterans a day are giving in to their despair and committing suicide.
U.S.VETS was established to find solutions to these problems.
• We provide housing for 5,000 vets a year to help stabilize their lives
• We help 1,000 veterans a year find jobs
• And we provide counseling and support to help veterans and their families address the issues that will enable them to attain independence and make them productive members of our community.
For many veterans, the battle to rebuild their lives has just begun.