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McChrystal the Right Stuff for New Veterans Assistance Program, Advocates Say

  • mcchrystal_041211

    Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal is seen in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, April 12, 2011, during an event launch the national initiative to support and honor America's service members and their families. (AP)AP2011

  • michelle_jill_041211

    First lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, are interviewed at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 12, 2011. (AP)AP2011

President Obama may have relieved Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his top post in Afghanistan nearly a year ago, but the commander in chief is now turning to the retired commander to help lead a new initiative aimed at helping thousands of U.S. troops struggling after their return from the war zones. 

McChrystal, who handed in his resignation after a magazine article out last June quoted him and his staff disrespecting the president, has accepted an offer from the White House to lead a new advisory board for the Joining Forces program at the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security. 

The president "feels strongly that the general is the right person to lead this commission," White House spokesman Jay Carney said last week. 

McChrystal will not get paid for his work, but his advisory position will be vital to assisting military members and their families struggling with mental, physical and economic issues. 

McChrystal "has rendered extraordinary service to this country during his decades in the military, and we honor not only that service but also his willingness to be part of an advisory board at the Center for a New American Security," a senior administration official told FoxNews.com. 

"He has a unique understanding of the challenges military families face every day, and is especially well-positioned to help mobilize the private sector to help," the official added.

First lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden ushered in the new program last week. It aims to rally communities, businesses, religious groups and the government around providing support to the impending flood of returning troops.

"This campaign is about all of us, all of us joining together, as Americans, to give back to the extraordinary military families who serve and sacrifice so much, every day, so that we can live in freedom and security," Michelle Obama said in a written statement as the two launched a tour across the country last week to promote the program, including several events with the children of service members.

About 50,000 troops are still on patrol in Iraq, a 90,000-troop reduction from its peak during the surge. Around 100,000 U.S. troops are fighting in Afghanistan and the White House plans to begin withdrawing them in July. The initial withdrawal is expected to be modest, but veterans' advocates told FoxNews.com they expect tens of thousands of troops to return home this year.

As the servicemen and women return to an economy recovering from the worst downturn since World War II, advocates say they fear that without sufficient assistance, veterans and their families could be torn apart.

"It's a very difficult transition to leave a war zone and three days later back in your hometown everyone is going about their normal lives, unaffected by the war, much less knowing anyone serving in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"America must understand that when we deploy a servicemember, the entire family goes along for the ride. These families have been sacrificing for almost 10 years. It's time for the rest of America to help shoulder their load," said Paul Riechkhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Military data show just how tough it is for combat veterans to readjust.

The jobless rate for Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans is 10.9 percent, down from its record high of 15.2 percent in January. 

The divorce rate for active-duty military personnel has climbed from 2.6 percent in 2001 to 3.6 percent in 2010, when there was an estimated 28,000 military divorces, according to the Pentagon. 

The suicide rate among 18- to 29-year-old veterans rose 26 percent from 2005 to 2007, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. At least 254 Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans committed suicide from 2002 to 2006, according to the VA. 

The number of diagnosed cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan soared by 46.4 percent in 2007. And more than 20,000 veterans, active-duty troops and reservists who received special government-backed mortgages lost their homes to foreclosures last year, the highest number since 2003, according to RealtyTrac.

Hundreds of programs already exist to assist returning troops, including services from the VA that seek to eliminate homelessness, increase opportunities for federal and private-sector careers and expand access to higher education.

On top of that, returning combat troops get free medical care from the VA for five years after they leave the military.

But Davis said unlike existing programs that troops must sign up for on their own, this initiative will find the troops.

"It's the support coming to the soldier," said Davis. "This is more than shaking your hand at the airport, although that is welcome."

A similar program, called America Supports You, was operational during the Bush administration to connect troops to support services. But it ended after the Pentagon inspector general discovered in late 2008 that more than $9 million was inappropriately funneled through the military newspaper Stars and Stripes to finance the program.

With a new program and a new focus, advocates say they are hopeful McChrystal will bring attention and credibility.

"The general has the respect of the entire military," Davis said. "And he has the respect of the nation."