Christopher Ahn, a former Marine Corps sergeant from Chino Hills, Calif., remembers his return home from the Iraq war.
It had been a challenging tour, and he had served as head of detention facilities post-Abu Ghraib and as deputy chief of intelligence for his battalion.
“I loved it,” he says of his service. “It was an extremely good experience.”
For Mr. Ahn, 27, who now works in Washington as director of operations for Vets for Freedom, the war had a broader significance than defending his country.
“As a Korean-American, I really treasured the soldiers and Marines who lost their lives to liberate Korea,” he says. “I always viewed my service as kind of paying it forward. These people risked their lives essentially for me so I can be in America.”
Despite his gratitude for the opportunities he has in this nation, living here as a veteran also means being underappreciated, he has found out.
Two days after he returned to the United States and made it back to California, he went to lunch at a chicken-wings restaurant with a few buddies from home. When the waitress checked his military identification card, her words stuck a knife into the heart of his happy and proud homecoming.
“She went into this diatribe about how the war is stupid and President Bush is the worst president and how this is a horrible war. I said, ‘I think I did a lot of great things over there,’” Mr. Ahn says.
“Who knows what the possibilities are now for the Iraqis, and the American way of life is providing that, being that beacon on the hill that [President] Reagan talked about? And here is this person just obliterating my service entirely.”
Veterans, including Mr. Ahn and others, say they deserve better.
On Nov. 11, the nation gets its annual chance to say “thank you” as it celebrates Veterans Day.
For some, the holiday is confused with Memorial Day and holds little significance other than a day off from work.
For others whose lives and families have been touched - and often scarred - by battle, it means a time of reflection on the meaning of freedom and defending our way of life.
“I love America, and I’ve seen what it stands for, watching guys risk their lives to save Iraqis,” Mr. Ahn says of his time in uniform. “That is what America is about, not about Hollywood, fancy cars, Starbucks or Wal-Mart. It’s what brought us that: the willingness to do what is right. No other country is doing that.
“Sure, we have good allies, but who is the leader of the world pushing for goodness and harmony and democracy and trying to facilitate that? It’s the Americans, and not the government, but the people through their sacrifices,” he says.
Not only on Veterans Day but every day: “Everyone should know and be proud of that,” he says.
Veterans Day began as Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1919, when President Wilson honored troops returning home from World War I. Seven years later, Congress voted to make it a legal holiday.
It took a man named Al King, a shoe-store owner from Emporia, Kan., to promote a day that would celebrate not only World War I veterans, but all of the nation’s men and women who had served in uniform. Mr. King lobbied his congressman, Rep. Edward H. Rees, Kansas Republican, and a bill was passed in Congress.
It was signed into law by President Eisenhower on May 26, 1954.
Today, the nation has about 24 million veterans, with 9.2 million of those 65 years or older and 1.9 million under the age of 35, according to the Census Bureau. They represent World War II and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, among other global conflicts. Though they come from different generations and have different needs in terms of health care, education and benefits, one thing that binds them is protecting their legacy.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons and have come a long way in how our veterans should be treated,” says Pete Hegseth, a Princeton University graduate and Minnesota native who served with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and now is chairman of Vets for Freedom in Washington.
“Our soldiers and Marines coming home are being given, on the surface, the treatment and admiration they deserve,” Mr. Hegseth says. “What oftentimes gets overlooked is making sure that their legacy and mission is completed, to know that what they sacrificed for is not in vain. I think the mission gets lost in conversation about vets and veterans issues, but we want to make sure that is front and center in this country.”
Army veteran Paul Rieckhoff, who leads the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) organization in New York, says he sees this as a critical time for the nation in the way it treats its troops. It’s up to the current generation to get it right.
“We’ve got an opportunity to turn the pages on Vietnam and do a better job, and I think we’ve already done some things better,” says Mr. Rieckhoff, a New York City resident whose National Guard unit served in the city after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and who was an infantry officer in Baghdad during the first year of the Iraq war.
“I think, overall, the American public, regardless of how they feel about the war, have supported us as troops coming home this time. But we’ve got folks doing three and four tours, mental health issues that insurance won’t cover, and we need leadership and help to get every American involved and focused on veterans issues. Veterans Day is a good time to come together and support all of our vets.”
During the presidential campaign, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain and Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama offered differing platforms and touched on the needs of veterans early on. However, veterans affairs never ascended as a key issue as the election cycle moved forward.
The year, however, was a banner year for current veterans with the passage of a new GI Bill, similar to the landmark legislation after World War II, which will provide funding for their college educations. That legislation was seen by some as monumental to helping today’s service people return to civilian life and prosper as they assimilate back into the work force after their duty is finished.
Veterans groups say the government has responded increasingly to the needs of veterans in recent years, but the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and its hospitals remain overburdened and need to be reformed if they are to absorb the current crop of troops.
“There is a gap between the VA and the Department of Defense,” acknowledges Eric Hilleman, deputy director of the national legislative office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in Washington. “The DOD’s purpose is to fight war, and they do their utmost to care for an individual as long as they stay in uniform. But as soon as they take it off, [DOD’s] responsibility ends. Now these individuals fall under the realm of the VA, and the transfer of these records between the two can get a little rocky.”
Such a transition can be difficult for veterans who must learn to navigate the bureaucratic terrain as they readjust to a new life outside the structure of the military. Some need advanced rehabilitation as they survive catastrophic wounds.
For many others, mental health care is essential as they are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from the psychological stresses of battle. Many also suffer the stigma of this condition.
The 2.2-million-member VFW, the nation’s oldest and largest group for combat veterans, exists to help veterans at the local level bridge the difficult gap of coming home and navigating the way their lives have changed since they were in combat. This generation of veterans, in particular, will have even greater needs, Mr. Hilleman says.
“There has been a totally different experience with this generation of warrior. They have seen technology on the battlefield, using computers, state-of-the-art in every sense of the word, and they expect that with their health care and want that state of the art in the VA. Their demands and expectations are quite high.”
He says they deserve it, noting that the types of wounds as well as the survivability of what used to be fatal injuries have changed the demand in levels of care and need for future military benefits.
“America, being the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the planet, cannot afford to protect those who keep it wealthy and carry out its policy abroad as second-rate citizens.” he says.
David Bellavia, 33, a former Army staff sergeant who served in Kosovo and Iraq and helped found Vets for Freedom, says the story of today’s veterans and their costly service must be told - and “not sugarcoated.”
“All these kids coming home, they are very proud of their service,” he says. “Once you put them on a pedestal, society has to look at veterans in a different way.”
None of them should be viewed as victims or simply as kids who couldn’t do well enough in college and so joined the military, he says. Many of today’s soldiers are the very patriotic cream of the crop.
“Now these kids have master’s degrees,” he says. “It used to be, there was a giant chasm between the education of those who were enlisted and those who were officers. Today, when you hear intellectual discussions in your battlefield camps, it’s not just officers and colonels. We have evolved, but society doesn’t see us as that. They don’t see veterans as a profession; it’s always been a vocation. That needs to change.”
Pennsylvania native Kate Norley, 25, an Army veteran who served 16 months as a specialist and medic in Iraq, says she made a decision to serve her country right after the Sept. 11 attacks. That day shook her to her very core but lit a fire within her that remains today, she says. Though she admits her family was worried, something inside told her there was a greater cause worth serving in protecting the nation.
“I felt scared, and I also felt that I was able and willing to help, whatever that meant. I wanted to do something, and I knew at least I could sleep at night knowing that I contributed to the defense of our own security and future security of the country.”
Now, as a veteran, she realizes the military gave her a precious gift. “I immediately found out what I was passionate about, and that was serving my country,” something she says she hopes to continue into the future.
Miss Norley and other veterans say that although it sounds like a cliche or a generalization, they hope civilians around the country will not only show them respect, but also authentically recognize that their service is what enables Americans to live lives of freedom and choice. Veterans Day, they say, ought to be every day, not simply a holiday when people wave flags or wear patriotic pins.
“Legacy is everything to veterans,” Mr. Bellavia says. “It was to my grandfather’s generation, to the Vietnam warrior; the way you act and how you view what war is about, that legacy is holy. Do I covet the support of the American people? Do I appreciate it? Without a doubt. But if you can’t look at me and tell my why I deserve it, then you have totally cheapened the loss of my friends and the sacrifices men and women are going through right now.”
He adds: “I see so many people using us as victims and, in some cases, criminals. I say: ‘If you can’t protect our legacy, there is nothing you can do for us.’”