Returning soldiers, still quite young, face challenges as they come home.

ORLANDO – Say the word “veteran,” and it’s tempting to think of a man in his 60s who served decades ago in the Vietnam War.
In actuality, when the Orlando Veterans Administration Medical Center held a special Welcome Home and Career Expo event on Saturday, they got plenty of soldiers who are veterans – although the average age was 25, not 65.
“We call it our newest generation of veterans, 25 to 35 years old,” said Fanita Jackson, the medical center’s OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) and Iraqi Freedom program manager. “A lot of them don’t consider themselves veterans.”
But they are – veterans of two conflicts, in Afghanistan and Iraq, that have been going on for nearly a decade.
The length of the two conflicts, Jackson said, means more and more young soldiers are coming back to the area as veterans – and in many instances, are in need of assistance.
That’s why the medical center sponsored this fourth annual “Welcome Home Event” for returning combat veterans.
“We take care of all the returning vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Jackson said. “We have over 8,000 returning vets in the area. Our numbers have steadily increased.”
The event, held at the medical center’s office on Raymond Street in Baldwin Park, attracted not only veterans and their families, but also seniors and people with disabilities, since the Center for Independent Living/Business Advisory Council was a co-sponsor of this program, which attracted a solid crowd of people through the day.
“Today went really well,” said Charles Tubbs, public affairs specialist for the medical center. “It was encouraging to see the amount of energy that came out today.”
Tubbs said he got plenty of feedback from the soldiers, thankful to know programs like this exist to help them readjust to civilian life.
“It’s encouraging to them to know the VA is available,” he said.
There are plenty of services for the soldiers and their families to take advantage of, Jackson said.
“For nine years we’ve been fighting two wars,” she said, adding that in some instances, the soldiers come home in need of counseling and other services.
“One of the things we definitely want to do is get them enrolled for health benefits and any disability benefits they may need,” she said. “We’re also getting them counseling for emotional and psychological issues. Those invisible wounds can be some of the more tragic.”
Jackson also noted that in many instances, the soldiers have been serving in the military for years, because they keep getting redeployed.
“Because of that we have veterans going back six or seven times,” she said. “That’s the place where they feel they can be the most beneficial, so they redeploy.”
When they return, she added, what they left behind is no longer the same.
“Sometimes their home life has changed,” Jackson said. “So you’ve got to readjust your family life. Children don’t always recognize that it’s the same daddy that went away.”
The VA Medical Center provides what Jackson called “very extensive” family counseling for veterans and their spouses, dealing with any issues they experience.
“The military is doing a much better job educating them,” Jackson said of the returning vets. “We also partner with the military, doing outreach programs like the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which was started right around 2008, and we’re doing a lot of outreach events.”
Although the two wars have generated controversy politically, Jackson said the general public appears to be standing firmly behind the soldiers fighting these two missions – a stark contrast to the Vietnam War years, when returning soldiers often believed they were badly mistreated by a public that had grown tired of the conflict.
“In 2006, my OEF program was started because they didn’t want the same thing to happen as it did during Vietnam,” she said. “Unfortunately with the Vietnam War, society was so against the war that it went against the soldiers as well. Today we want our veterans to have a seamless transition. We try to make it easy for them out here at the medical center.”
The Career Expo also brought out employers interested in hiring combat soldiers, she said.
“We bring a list of employers and resource vendors and benefits agencies to come out here today,” she said. “It was a very good turnout. We had over 500 to 600 people show up. We were able to accomplish a lot in one day.”

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Network needed for returning soliders, supporters say.

Family and friends waved banners on Feb. 24 when 50 Marine reservists returned to Orlando.

ORLANDO – Calling it an issue of patriotism, not politics, Doug Guetzloe is encouraging his listeners on The Guetzloe Report radio program to establish a network of people involved in welcoming troops serving in the military overseas when they come back to Central Florida.
“I think we really need to establish a network to get people involved in welcoming our troops,” Guetzloe said. “We need to know when these companies are coming in.”
Guetzloe was at the scene on Feb. 24 when two buses transporting 50 Marine reservists traveled from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune to the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Orlando. The soldiers, returning from Afghanistan, had served for 10 months overseas before returning home last week.
Guetzloe had encouraged a strong turnout at the event through his radio program and through an email blast letting people know the Marines were arriving.
“I was there with my son Jefferson and nearly a dozen listeners to The Guetzloe Report who responded to the email I sent out,” he said. “Even though we had no relatives on the bus, it was exciting and a very powerful, moving experience to see these Marines arrive back to home and hearth. Watching the families being reunited and being a part of this celebration to America’s greatness was awesome.”
The Marine Corps active duty personnel looked excited and thrilled to see so many family members, friends and loved ones turn out to welcome them home, he said.
“It was just totally all-American,” Guetzloe said. “It was a flag-waving event.”
“It was very short notice, but we wanted to try to spread the word,” said Cathy Haynes, a member of Blue Star Mothers, who helped get out the word about the homecoming.
“Their family and friends were there to greet there,” Haynes said. “We wanted to give these young people a pat on the back.”
Guetzloe said the Central Florida community needs a wide network of people who want to be notified whenever members of the Armed Services are returning to the region. Even on short notice, Guetzloe said, it would be terrific if every homecoming attracted a strong crowd to show the soldiers how much the people back home support them and their mission.
“The effort to support the troops has nothing to do with whether your support the war or don’t support the war, whether you support President Obama or don’t support him,” Guetzloe said, adding that when he went to the homecoming, “I got to talk to several of the Marines. They said they can’t wait to go back. They consider this a mission to spread freedom and justice to the world.”
For more than a decade, The Guetzloe Report has been supporting the troops by organizing an ongoing “Boxes for the Troops” campaign and “Christmas Cards for the Troops” program. This is another part of that effort, he said.
“We want to do basically a Welcoming Home to our Central Florida troops that died in the battle,” Guetzloe said. “They’re doing this right now in Tampa. They set up a line as a welcoming to the troops. Fortunately, we do not have very many casualties here in Orlando.”
Military writer Richard S. Lowry, author of the book “NEW DAWN: The Battlee for Falluja,” said these homecomings provide a boost to the morale of the returning soliders.
“I think they do,” said Lowry, who is 62 years old.
“I’m of the age where I was in the military service during the Vietnam War,” he said. “We were treated very badly by the general public. We were told we shouldn’t wear our uniforms back then. These men and women coming home are wearing the uniforms to protect us.”
The homecomings, he said, are “quite helpful” to the soldiers.
“What they truly want to see — and the people they want to be with — is their family,” Lowry said. “To have a group of people in the background has got to be uplifting to them.”
Still, he added that not enough communities set up networks to draw strong crowds for a military homecoming.
“Here in Orlando, we do a very poor job of greeting returning troops,” Lowry said. “There is an organization in Dallas, Texas that meets nearly every airplane that has troops on it.”

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Organizer of a homecoming for the Marines says their return was “electric.”

It was all hugs, kisses and warm welcomes for the 50 Marine reservists who came back from Afghanistan to Orlando on Thursday night.

ORLANDO – The email went out on Thursday night, and in just a few words managed to capture the excitement that was building for the people waiting near Tradeport Drive.
“Hot off the phone lines,” it started. “They are currently 132 miles north of Jacksonville now – as of 4:30 p.m.”
Sent out to a network of her friends, supporters and colleagues, Cathy Haynes’ email not only captured the growing anticipation being felt by the crowd at the Armed Forces Reserve Center, but it also helped build it up.
“There was a cell phone that was on the bus,” Haynes said. “A Marine command was following their progress. The person with the cell phone was instructed to notify the command when they crossed the state line from Georgia, and when they crossed the I-4/Daytona intersection, and so on. It was reality — they were on their way home.”
What everyone was waiting for was two buses transporting 50 Marine reservists who had flown in on Thursday to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune from Afghanistan. They had served for 10 months and now were on their way to Central Florida. They arrived at the Armed Forces Reserve Center near Orlando International Airport late last night, setting up a scene that Haynes described as being absolutely electric.
“I didn’t know any of these warriors on the bus, but vicariously I felt they were all my family because of all the family waiting there for their warriors,” she said. “Also, I know there were some of these young Marines whose families could not be there, so I wanted to find them and be their family, and tuck them under my wing and thank them for serving us. It’s awful to be left out and feel lonesome in a crowd.
“But as soon as the flashing lights from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office cars turned the corner, it was pandemonium, it was electric,” she added. “So many of these folks had waited for their sons and husbands and brothers to come home. It was wonderful. It sent shivers down your spine.”
Haynes, who lives in Orlando, helped put together the homecoming and has been involved for several years in numerous veteran and military organizations, as well as being a member of the Blue Star Mothers.
“My only child, my son, is in the Navy and I’ve always felt a patriotic edge and a patriotic facet with my life,” Haynes said. “With my family history, probably every generation going back to the American Revolution has served our country in some way, mostly in the military, so I have that patriotic blood. Instead of bleeding red blood, it would be red, white and blue.”
One of her top goals recently has been to find a way to notify families when members of the Armed Services are headed back to this city.
“I was out at the Reserve Center a week and a half ago, and I have some Army Reserve contacts out there and some Navy Reserve contacts, but I did not have any for the Marines, so I went up to them and introduced myself to make sure they get included in my notifications to the community,” Haynes said. “And they mentioned they had a group coming back at the end of the month, and I said I’d love to find out when that would be, because if you’d like a domino effect back home, I have a network of people to contact.”
And contact them she did, sending out email blasts about the upcoming return. When the date got finalized, her email included this piece of advice: “Bring plenty of hugs, tissues, flags/signs/cookies/etc.”
“There are so many people that want to get involved, but the gaps in the network makes it difficult,” she said.
That’s why she made this return a great test case for getting out the word, even on very short notice, about the soldiers coming home.
When she learned about it, “I send notices to their family and friends to get out the word. I know there are a lot of people who would love to get involved in something like this. It was incredibly short notice for a lot of people to be able to participate, but the goal is to be able to get a little more head notice and let folks know, so they’ve got a choice to participate or not participate.”
The huge turnout and heartfelt welcome that the soldiers got was probably a solid boost to their morale, knowing the people back home love and support them so much, Haynes said.
“I can only hope that theirs was a sigh of relief, that in reality that they were home,” she said. “I don’t think that they had expected anything like the turnout that there was in the community with such short notice. They were choked up. Some of them just clung to people and hugged them. They were grinning from ear to ear to be told by people they don’t even know, ‘Thank you for serving, thank you for being a Marine.”

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