Veterans are looking for 'hand up' in difficult return to civilian life
Ed Stewart learned firsthand how a lot of folks back home felt about Vietnam War veterans.
“I was home on leave in East Detroit and walking down the street in uniform with my brother when a guy drove by and threw an egg at me,” said Stewart, 62, of Green Tree, a retired Navy SEAL who served in 1973-74. “I wanted to go through the car window after that guy. It was a little thing, but it said a lot about how some people felt.”
Nearly 40 years later, Stewart and other Vietnam-era veterans, who constitute the largest contingent of veterans in Western Pennsylvania, say they feel vindicated by a new level of respect for the Armed Forces.
“Now when you see someone out in public in uniform, people go up and thank them for their service and offer to buy them dinner,” Stewart said.
With a problematic U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, followed by a continuing troop drawdown from Afghanistan, many people have been honoring veterans with walk-a-thons and spaghetti dinners. They build injured vets special homes; businesses offer discounts; schools invite veterans to speak to students.
Yet despite this interest and gratitude, about 44 percent of the more than 2.2 million troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan report having difficulties readjusting to civilian life, reconnecting with family members, finding employment and returning to school, according to a study by the Nation Academies' Institute of Medicine.
The government more than doubled funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, from $70.9 billion in 2005 to a proposed $152.7 billion next year, with the intent of expanding the VA's ability to process claims and improving medical and residential care and fighting homelessness and unemployment among veterans.
In 2005, the VA had 5.2 million patients. It now has 6.5 million and 90 million visits from patients each year. By 2005, veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan had logged 100,000 visits to VA hospitals. That cumulative number climbed to 900,000 this year.
Pennsylvania is home to more than 950,000 veterans, the fourth-largest veteran population in the nation, according to the state Departments of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Al Mercer, director of the Veterans Leadership Program, said even with government programs, making the transition to civilian life can be difficult.
“The last thing someone wants after a couple tours of duty is to sit through a program that feels like it's death by PowerPoint,” he said. “People just want to go home. But when they get there, they realize all their battle buddies aren't around to help them deal with questions like: ‘What should do now? How do I fit in?' ”
Some veterans survived injuries because of advanced battlefield medicine but have “profound disabilities,” said Kevin D. Noel, commander of the Pittsburgh chapter of Disabled American Veterans. They “are returning home with greater needs.”
Eric Walker, 42, of Bethel Park, a single father of three sons ages 6, 4 and 2, broke his neck in 1991 while serving in the Navy during the Gulf War. He has permanent nerve damage.
“I'm not looking for a handout, just a hand up,” he said. Walker said he found “that a lot of employers wouldn't hire somebody who's disabled, so it's been difficult.”
Public support for the military grew dramatically after 9/11, but that sentiment waned as many people became war-weary, service providers for veterans say.
“That initial rally around the flag and the nation's call to arms after we were attacked was great,” said Ben Stahl, 35, of Forest Hills, who joined the Navy the day after the attacks and did two tours in Iraq. “But that fervor has definitely diminished over the years, which is unfortunate.”
Ronald Conley, director of Allegheny County's Department of Veterans' Services, said troops miss out on a form of group therapy that pre-Vietnam veterans got from talking to each other about their experience as they returned from war in large groups, on military ships that took a week or more to arrive.
Now, said Conley, 69, who served in the Air Force from 1963-66, “troops often travel home by themselves on commercial airliners after being discharged, so you have soldiers going from being in the middle of firefight one day to being back home ... which can make it that much harder to adjust.”
Still, some who care are stepping up.
Tom Gillece, who owns a plumbing, heating, cooling, electrical and waterproofing business in Bridgeville, said he's building a training facility for veterans who might want to become service technicians.
“I'm not a veteran, but I'm thankful for the men and women who put their lives on the line to serve our country,” Gillece said. “... I thought this facility might be a good way to help them prepare for a job.”
Staff writer Rick Wills contributed to this report. Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer.
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