This time, vets return to welcome
With lessons from Vietnam in mind, community groups, local businesses, and faith groups are helping soldiers shift back to civilian life.
In the eyes of many critics, the war in Iraq has become a "quagmire" – reminiscent of Vietnam.
But as the nation prepares to mark the fifth Veterans Day since the US-led invasion, the two lengthy and controversial conflicts are very different in one crucial way. This time, combat vets are being welcomed back by Americans of all political persuasions.
Around the country, community groups, local businesses, service organizations, clubs, and faith groups are helping build homes with special features or providing vehicles to accommodate wounded GIs. They're donating to educational scholarships and providing airline tickets so soldiers on leave from the war zone can get all the way home. And veterans themselves – some of them old-timers, some recently returned from war themselves – have organized to provide a comradely ear as difficult experiences are related.
In Vancouver, Wash., this Sunday, friends of Army Cpl. Jeremiah Johnson will gather for a fundraiser to build a mortgage-free home for his wife, Gale, and their two young children. Corporal Johnson was killed in Iraq earlier this year. The Salmon Creek Foursquare Church has set up a special fund, and donations of labor and materials have been coming in as well.
"It's a true community event," says Kelly Helmes, owner of New Tradition Homes, which is providing the building site at reduced cost and paying for all construction permits. "We're honored to be part of the project."
In the San Diego area, Sign-a-Rama stores last week began offering free $100 banners to welcome home veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "It seems to be something that the families can use," says Mark Schicktanz, owner of the store in Encinitas.
The difference today is plain and particularly poignant to Vietnam veterans. "[Then] even the wounded were reviled and taunted as baby-killers," recalls retired Army Col. Dan Smith, now a military analyst with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Quaker lobby in Washington.
In this post-9/11 era, the changed attitude toward men and women in uniform, symbolized by individual and collective acts of kindness, appears widespread.
Even though 63 percent of Americans say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting (ABC News poll this week), 77 percent have a favorable view of the military and 72 percent say the government doesn't give enough support to soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan (Pew Research survey in March).
Following the reported failings at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the military services, the Bush administration, and Congress have been scrambling to help vets back from the war.
But the bureaucratic and legislative wheels turn slowly: There's a backlog of some 400,000 vets waiting for disability and other benefits. There's also new concern about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the suicide rate among vets back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
While military veterans represent 11 percent of the civilian adult population, they make up 26 percent of the homeless, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Census Bureau. Counting all US veterans, 195,827 were homeless in January 2006 and an estimated 336,000 were homeless over the course of the year, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reports. [Editor's note: The original version cited an incorrect figure for the total number of homeless veterans during 2006.]
To help meet the needs of vets, hundreds of grass-roots organizations are dedicated to supporting troops and their families. More than 300 nonprofits are listed on the America Supports You website.
At the Army's Fort Sam Houston in Texas, developer brothers Steve and Les Huffman started Returning Heroes Home to build a large facility for wounded veterans. There, they could reconnect with their families and prepare for reintegration into the civilian world. The 12,000-square-foot facility will include dining and recreation areas, private counseling rooms, and computerized training.
"Despite the fact that the military has billions of dollars … in order to get an allocation from the military, it would take time and it would take significant levels of approval," explains Steve Huffman. "We felt very strongly that this is something that needed to be done now."
The project is funded by donations. In the course of one month, more than $1.3 million of the $3.8 million required to build the facility has been collected. "This is just a very small down payment on a tremendous debt we owe these people," says Mr. Huffman.
Just as civilian groups are organizing to help returning vets, so, too, are vets themselves.
Vets4Vets is a peer support group founded two years ago by Marine Corps vet Jim Driscoll, who served in Vietnam. Based in Tucson, Ariz., the group organizes weekend workshops, one-on-one counseling, and local discussion groups around the country.
Swords to Plowshares, formed in 1974 by six vets in San Francisco, helps veterans and their families find jobs, get government benefits, and deal with PTSD.
One variation here is vets helping their Iraqi interpreters, who have been threatened by insurgents for helping Americans there. When he got back after a year's tour in Iraq, Oregon National Guard Capt. Jason Faler started the Checkpoint One Foundation to help bring interpreters and their families to the United States.
So far this small group (Captain Faler and two buddies) has raised about $5,000 and brought one Iraqi family to Oregon. "They've risked everything," says Faler, who expects to be ordered back to Iraq. "They served with bravery and patriotism. I consider them my brothers."
Vietnam veteran Lee Thorn, who's been an antiwar and a pro-vet activist for many years, says "it's heartening to hear these stories" of Americans reaching out to a younger generation of war vets. Whether or not one takes a specific step such as helping with home construction or education for a new career, he says, there's something perhaps even more important that everyone can do.
"Treat [the vet] like a good person. Treat him like a human being, and don't ask rude questions," he says. "Let them tell their story in their own time. If you're very sincere in welcoming them back and listening to their story – whatever part they want to tell you – just quietly and without judgment and with compassion, that's going to do a lot of good."
And one more thing, he says, speaking of the politicians and officials (and ultimately the voters in a democracy) who decide it's in the national interest to send men and women to war. "If they really want to treat these guys right, then they need to understand that if you send people to war, they're going to come back different, and you better take that into account up front," says Mr. Thorn, who has been diagnosed with PTSD.
Such concern may well apply to vets of all wars. The other day, a customer called the Sign-a-Rama store in Encinitas, Calif., to ask if a free banner could be made for a Vietnam War veteran. Mr. Schicktanz quickly agreed.
"It's someone who has a rough time around every Veterans Day," he says. The banner proclaims: "You are home, Sgt. Richards. We're proud of you. Thank you."
• Tom A. Peter in Boston and Randy Dotinga in San Diego contributed to this report.