The U.S. will be bringing its remaining 39,000 troops home from Iraq by the end of the year, but 130,000 remain in Afghanistan — and U.S. military officials expect to maintain a presence there until 2014, at least.
By Veterans Day 2011, more than 2.3 million Americans will have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since in 2001. More than 6,000 troops have died in combat, and nearly 47,000 have been injured — well over a thousand returning as amputees, nearly a half-million with traumatic brain injuries.
“No matter what you think about the current wars, there are a lot of returning troops who need support,” said Karen Boehler, president-elect of the Colorado chapter of the American Legion Auxiliary.
She is also a member of the Auxiliary with its home at the George Beach Post No. 4 in LaPorte, one of 9,500 Auxiliary units nationwide. (Fort Collins is also home to Alonzo Martinez Post No. 187, and a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.)
The American Legion was founded to give U.S. troops returning from World War I a way to stay connected with their brothers-in-arms. The Auxiliary was founded soon after to support the Legion.
Boehler said the more than 200 members of Unit 4 have sewed warm fleece sleeping bag liners and cooling gel helmet liners for troops in the desert and sent them phone cards so they could call home. They have also “adopted” veterans without family in VA nursing homes, sending cards and gifts to let them know their service is not forgotten.
Unit 4 President Denysia McCracken focuses on the families of veterans. The unit hosts holiday parties for children and works with the Sons of the American Legion to raise funds for Fisher House, where families can stay while vets receive medical treatment at the VA hospital in Denver.
One of the newest members of Unit 4 is Peggy Sue Meininger. She first became involved with injured veterans in 2006, when she helped with logistics for an all-veteran bicycle ride at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. By 2008, she was one of only two civilians assisting on a 5-day Solider Ride for seriously wounded warriors.
“The guys who had done it before — they had traumatic brain injuries, amputations, PTSD — were reaching back to the new guys, to help them see what they could do,” Meininger recalled. “It’s a close-knit group, soldiers caring for soldiers, because the rest of us who haven’t been there will never be able to understand what they went through and what they need.”
What they do need is to have a challenge to work on, Meininger said, and cycling appeals to the overwhelmingly young recent veterans. In August, she coordinated a hand-cycle race up Rist Canyon as part of the Fort Collins Cycling Festival.
After being involved in three major rides this year — one just for female veterans — Meininger is taking a break, but still serves as an unofficial facilitator for “her boys.” She especially wants to hear from anyone who was denied medical benefits for a traumatic brain injury before 2007.
“They may be eligible for a reevaluation,” she said. “Until 2008, the VA didn’t consider TBI a ‘real’ injury, and so many didn’t get the benefits they deserved. Now, so many records have been lost, the vets need to come forward.”
Meininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-481-3044.
Stand Down for all veterans
Another organization concerned that vets get what they deserve — jobs — is the state of Colorado. Chad Imker is the Local Veterans Employment Representative embedded at the Larimer County Workforce Center. He is coordinating this year’s Veterans Stand Down on 9 a.. to 1 p.m. Thursday Nov. 10 at The Mission of Catholic Charities Northern in Fort Collins.
The Stand Down provides homeless veterans basic health-care services, haircuts, clothing and hygiene articles, as well as assists them to become job-ready. More than 30 volunteers will be on hand to serve breakfast and a hot meal at noon, two bicycle mechanics will offer tune-ups, and a veteran’s services officer can help with benefits. Imker said a veterinarian willing to give free pet checkups would be greatly appreciated.
Last year, when the Stand Down expanded to include Weld and Boulder counties, about 118 veterans showed up, said Imker, himself a member of the National Guard. There are about 23,000 veterans in Larimer County, 60,000 in the three counties, and the rate of homelessness is “about average” for the population, he said, but declined to give an estimate.
“Female veterans are also welcome at the Stand Down,” Imker said. “Our services are for everyone regardless of era served, regardless of gender.”
Imker can be reached at 970-498-6651.
The next day, Veterans Day, the Legion will host its traditional breakfast at the post, followed by a daylong family celebration.
Then at 1 p.m. Sunday Nov. 13, the American flag will be raised over Veterans Plaza of Northern Colorado at the west end of Horsetooth Road, the south entrance to Spring Creek Community Park. The centerpiece of the memorial, a bronze statue of a soldier carrying a young boy on his shoulder, will also be unveiled at the ceremony.
“This plaza honors all veterans, and stands as a testament to the power of patriotism and military service,” said Diggs Brown, a major in the Colorado Army National Guard and co-chair of the Veterans Plaza planning committee.
The plaza includes a 500-seat amphitheater, interactive walls commemorating veterans, and a garden containing soils from battlefields, cemeteries and military installations around the globe.
For more information about the Veterans Plaza, or to download a form for recognition of a veteran, go to www.veteransplazanoco.org .