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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