Wounds of Iraq war: US struggles with surge of returning veterans
With combat operations set to end in Iraq, many veterans come home diagnosed with post traumatic stress syndrome and other maladies related to modern war. What's being done to help.
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It wasn't long after Zacchea entered the University of Connecticut's School of Business that he became involved with the Entrepreneurial Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV), a program in which UConn and five other business schools offer training, business classes, and mentoring for injured post-9/11 vets looking to start their own businesses. Some 200 vets have completed the program since it was founded in 2007. Its graduates have become independent film producers and private investigators, Web designers and property managers.Skip to next paragraph
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"For me, coming to UConn and being involved in this is sort of an intervention," he says. "I was in a negative spiral."
His efforts highlight one of the positive aspects of a nation struggling to cope with the surge home – a sort of shadow VA.
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In Gardner, Mass., a small town an hour west of Boston, Leslie Lightfoot walks past a construction worker and into the cool air-conditioned embrace of a newly built two-bedroom apartment. It feels as clean and fresh as a honeydew melon.
In the coming months, the apartment will be occupied by a disabled veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan. Ms. Lightfoot, a former Army medic and founder of Veteran Homestead, has been working with disabled and terminally ill veterans for more than 30 years and, in October, opened the first all-inclusive rehabilitation center focused on issues facing vets from this generation.
The Northeast Veteran Training and Rehabilitation Center sits on a leafy 12-acre site donated by nearby Mount Wachusett Community College. The remote 20-unit facility will give vets with disabilities the opportunity to recover in a comfortable home while attending classes at the college.
"I knew what was coming," says Lightfoot of the huge number of returning vets in need. "You send people to war six times and what do you expect?"
While the military and VA hospitals are struggling to cope with the problems facing warriors coming home, a growing network of nonprofit groups is forming to fill the gaps in service offered by the government.
"The biggest thing I see right now are vets coming back, and they can't find a job," says Tracy Handschuh, chapter president of the New York/New Jersey branch of Operation Homefront, a group that helps service members cope with emergency financial needs. Ms. Handschuh notes, for instance, that while companies are legally obligated to hold a reservist's job when he or she is deployed overseas, that isn't going to help if the company has folded during the recession. "When a service member comes back from deployment, there may not be a job to save," she says.
The nonprofits dedicated to the postwar recovery of men and women who served in Iraq or Afghanistan run the gamut: from groups that provide free airfare for former soldiers who need to travel for health reasons (Air Compassion for Veterans) to one that builds houses for severely injured veterans, many of whom lost arms and legs (Homes for Our Troops).
In some cases, the organizations are providing services that the government either won't or can't. When Homes for Our Troops goes about building a specially adapted house for a double amputee or some other survivor of an IED attack, it tries to get the entire community involved in the process.
"The feeling and appreciation that these guys get when they see hundreds of people from a community come out to do this for them ... they are being shown direct support of the American people," says John Gonsalves, president and founder of Homes for Our Troops. "It's critical for them to experience that."
• Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report.