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By Shelby Monroe
November 9, 2007
A recent headline stated that 1 in 4 of America’s homeless are veterans. Both young and old. We like to say we support our troops, but maybe we are all talk and magnetic yellow ribbons. How much do we really know or care about what happens to a soldier when he or she returns from war?
Last year I spent 4 1/2 months with the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade, who were stationed in Kirkuk for twelve months, and who have just returned to Iraq for another fifteen months. Imagine trying to re-enter civilian life after two or more tours in Iraq. And the soldiers who have been serving in Iraq are not some specially bred fighting force; they are not so different from the rest of us. Many enlisted after September 11th, believing in the importance of serving their country during a time of great uncertainty.
Just like brothers
I have four brothers I love spending time with here in Chappaqua, and driving around in a humvee with a bunch of soldiers in Iraq was almost as much fun. They were funny, and decent, and loyal, and I wanted them all to get home safely and get on with their lives. But getting home safely is only half the battle. Finding meaningful work is difficult for any of us, but translating military experience into terms a civilian workplace would understand or appreciate is almost impossible. Going to college is also much easier said than done.
During my final days in Kirkuk, I talked to some of the soldiers who were planning to get out when their deployment was over. I wanted to give them my support and encouragement. One soldier asked me if I thought he could handle college. The question broke my heart. If a young man can endure several years of military training and long deployments away from his family, it seems to me the least he should have when he hangs up his uniform is the confidence that he can accomplish anything, or at least the things the rest of us consider routine.
Encouragement and a warm welcome home
I told him I thought his military experience would give him an edge over the other students, and I told him I thought he might really enjoy school. I wish I had exchanged e-mail addresses with him because I would love to know how he is doing. I wish I had offered to help him navigate his way out of the Army and into the classroom.
Over the next several years, we will see thousands of soldiers trying to find their way home after giving years to a war they will not be able to say they won. At the very least, we should say “Welcome Home,” and “Thank You” to these people who have served our country, and let’s face it, we need people to serve this country. But if we really have learned to treat our veterans better than we have in the past, we should be thinking about them every day, not just Veterans Day, and we should be making sure they have a home and the means to move forward. They should not have to fight to survive here too.
Shelby Monroe plans to return to Iraq in December and will continue to write about the men and women who serve there.