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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.