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Marine Corporal Anthony Villarreal has answered a different calling: he helps his fellow wounded veterans come to terms with their injuries. Villarreal knows what that takes. He served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. It was in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in June 2008 that his Humvee struck an IED. In the ensuing blaze, Villarreal just managed to crawl out before a rocket in the vehicle’s rear exploded. He received third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body and spent three-and-half-months in a drug-induced coma. In the course of over 70 surgeries, doctors had to amputate his right hand and his left fingers. Basic physical tasks became a challenge. Villarreal says he felt like a “baby,” relearning how to live. Yet another struggle: people’s constant staring at his burns. In time, Villarreal learned to cope, and today he advises other veterans through their recovery process as part of the Wounded Warrior Project. He also tries to help civilians understand the wounded veterans among them. “I want to give insight to civilians that these warriors are out there,” he says. “Ask us and we’ll tell you our story. We’re so much more than something to stare at.”
Incredible as it is, the perseverance shown by veterans like Anthony Villarreal cannot obscure the grim fact that, for many wounded warriors, adjusting to post-war life remains a trying ordeal. Studies conducted over the past ten years have shown that almost 20 percent – one in five returning war veterans – report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Flashbacks, haunting memories, recurring nightmares – these debilitating wounds they carry in addition to their severe physical injuries.
Finding work – a crucial part of rejoining civilian life – presents yet another challenge. In October, the rate of unemployment for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan was 12.1 percent, compared to 9 percent for the country as a whole. This economic picture for veterans is dark enough, but many wounded veterans say their physical disabilities present a further obstacle. Surveys show that those seriously injured while serving are less likely than other veterans to be employed full time and are more likely to be unemployed. A November Pew poll found that nearly 28 percent of wounded veterans say their disability has prevented them from getting a job. Of those wounded veterans who are currently not working, almost half say their impairment is preventing them from getting a job.
If there is a bright spot, it is that help exists. Countless civic organizations have emerged since 2001 to honor the troops and to assist them as they work to resume everyday life. National non-profit organizations like the Jacksonville, Florida-based Wounded Warrior Project, which collected the above stories, have done extensive work helping wounded veterans adjust to society. Besides offering wounded veterans a social outlet, the Project offers a number of different services, including rehabilitation, stress counseling, and career retraining. Another non-profit, Homes for Our Troops, works to assist severely injured servicemen and their families by raising money, building materials, and professional labor to build them homes that are adapted to their disabilities and that go well beyond what is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. A similar non-profit, Operation Finally Home, recently helped the abovementioned Marine Corporal Anthony Villarreal and his wife Jessica, also a veteran, to get a new mortgage-free and fully furnished home.
Commendable as they are, such support efforts are woefully insufficient. While transitioning from the battlefield to the home-front remains the veterans’ enduring challenge, Americans’ great task is to show themselves equal to the sacrifice that these men and women have made for their country, and to pay proper homage to the heroism for which many of them paid so dearly.
That task begins with recognizing the indomitable spirit and the heroic character of these wounded warriors. Amid all the discouraging statistics concerning the challenges wounded veterans face, there is one that is not mentioned nearly enough. The same November Pew poll that showed their unemployment struggles found that almost 70 percent of the seriously injured veterans surveyed would advise a young man or woman to enlist in the military. Despite everything they have lost, they continue to believe in the honor of national service and they take pride in defending their country. In an age when those who make the most noise attract the most attention, they may not command newspaper headlines. But there can be no greater tribute to American greatness than the exceptional caliber of the warriors it produces, and who gave so much on the wars’ frontlines.
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