President Obama marked the end of the Iraq war at Fort Bragg last week after nine years, more than 4,500 service members lost and more than 30,000 wounded.
As the last troops from Fort Bragg prepare to return home by the end of the month, deployments to Afghanistan continue.
WHQR’s Sara Wood examines how the Cape Fear region is embracing homecomings while at the same time preparing for more departures.
With its close proximity to Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg, Southeastern North Carolina is naturally home to a large veteran population.
At the downtown Wilmington campus of Cape Fear Community College, Veteran Affairs Coordinator Bob Philpott sits in the year-old Student Veterans Center. It’s winter break but five men, veterans all so young-looking, are there hanging out.
Like so many veterans before them, the last 2,200 Fort Bragg troops come home to a sea of new obstacles that Philpott encounters regularly at the center: traumatic physical and emotional wounds, a high unemployment rate, and rising substance abuse.
“I think we are doing better, we still have a long way to go. We've got an awful lot of men and women who I think we have an obligation to help.”
Philpott's philosophy is a lot like Kure Beach resident Tom Russell's philosophy: with the help of the local community, veterans can begin to find their way back home.
Russell, a Vietnam veteran, started Step Up for Soldiers in 2004. He adapts homes of veterans who return with combat injuries and disabilities. So far, he’s completed 15 projects.
“It's not easy. I try to go in, and just a pat on the back and be a buddy. I try to do what I think I'd want somebody to for my two sons.”
Russell checks out the home of veteran Josh Lindauer and his wife Emily. They've lived just outside Jacksonville in their small home for the past three years but it's slowly falling apart and money is tight.
After three deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Josh suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury and a knee injury, which is why Russell takes measurements to replace the thick, cream carpeting with wood.
Josh’s knee injury causes him to drag his right foot. The carpet makes it even worse.
“We wouldn't be able to afford all this stuff taken care of. And if we did do it on our own it would take us years to get it done. So I mean, just having the people come out here and do the work in itself helps out a lot.”
Russell climbs a ladder to check out the roof as Emily watches, holding her eight-month-old baby. She says after Josh’s deployments, his unit wanted him to go back to Afghanistan again, but he was exhausted.
“You know, there's no visible physical injuries, but it's the mental injuries. I think it can be sometimes, not harder to deal with, but just different. Because you don’t, you can't see it, you don’t know.”
Betty Goolsby is the director of the Fayetteville VA Medical Center, which runs outreach centers in several local counties, including New Hanover.
She says out of the 51,000 local area veterans accessing services, 14,000 served in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the end of the Iraq War, Goolsby says those numbers will continue to increase.
“Living here in Fayetteville, I can tell the troops are back because the lines have gotten longer in the grocery story and there’s more traffic on the road. But in terms of the VA, we will continue to see as there is a drawdown in the force, more marines, sailors, soldiers that are availing themselves of service in the VA.”
How many will avail themselves across the southeastern nook of the state is uncertain. Goolsby says in the Fort Bragg area, soldiers tend to stay there when they return home or retire. The same is true of Camp Lejeune, where currently there are 12,000 marines deployed to Afghanistan.
As one extended war ends and another continues, smaller, community-based resources like Step Up for Soldiers will be as imperative as broader institutions like the VA.
Note: Bob Philpott, the veteran affairs coordinator for Cape Fear Community College featured in this story, is the past president of WHQR’s Board of Directors.
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