NEW YORK – As the nation remembers those who served in past wars, a new generation of veterans is doing all they can to help wounded soldiers adjust to life back home.
Some are drawing parallels between soldiers who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and those who served in World War II.
“This is not a generation of kids that are easy to get down," said John Melia, founder of the Wounded Warrior Project, one of the many groups that have sprouted up to help injured American military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They have attitudes that are different from any other generation of veterans I’ve ever met before,” Melia said, adding that the prevailing attitude among the veterans is one of perseverance no matter what. “I think this is the next greatest generation, mainly because of that attitude.”
For some of the returning military personnel, being wounded while serving the United States means having to deal with an endless stream of questions about their bloodiest day.
Retired Sgt. Heath Calhoun, who lost both his legs in Iraq, said reporters often dwell on his injuries but they never ask him if he's drawing on his experience to help others like him.
“I guess it is kind of complicated to ask. Everybody’s really interested in ‘OK, so you lost both your legs in a truck.’ They always kind of like the highlights of what I’ve done, but nobody really says anything about me helping soldiers.”
Calhoun, a 25-year-old native of Grundy, Va., was in the back of a Humvee on Nov. 7, 2003, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the vehicle, killing one of his friends and ripping off another soldier's arm.
Lt. Melissa Stockwell, an alumnus of the University of Colorado, lost her left leg on April 13 when an improvised explosive device went off near her Humvee as she entered the Green Zone (search) in Baghdad. She's had her fair share of interviews since her accident as well, and is perplexed by the questions that are never asked.
“No one ever asks me how my soldiers are doing over in Iraq. It’s all about me and it shouldn’t be about me because they are still over there right now,” the 24-year-old said.
Calhoun, of Ft. Campbell’s 101st Airborne, and Stockwell, with Ft. Hood's 1st Cavalry 27th Support Battalion, are members of the all-volunteer force that served in Iraq. In all, 185,329 service members have been deployed to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and upwards of 8,000 have been wounded, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (search).
Both Calhoun and Stockwell led soldiers underneath them and both resumed active lifestyles when they recovered from attacks on their units.
Calhoun rode 30 miles of a fund-raising “Soldier Ride” on a hand cycle from Denver to Colorado Springs in the fall. And Stockwell completed the New York City Marathon in three hours last weekend with the Achilles Track Club. Both of them are amputees.
And both of them still have the same thing on their mind: their brothers and sisters in arms.
While both have retired from service, Calhoun has now found employment in veteran advocacy while Stockwell is grateful to spend some time with her husband in the safety of their home.
They have what some call the warrior spirit — a bond that veterans from years past can relate to.
“I felt like I could speak the language of these guys," said Melia. “I felt that I had something to say to them other than, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I had something — I brought a message of hope.”
Melia was severely burned in a helicopter crash over the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia in 1991 that killed four of his friends.
Shortly after he recovered, he found himself sitting in his basement trying to come up with something that could fill the void in the care the wounded were getting.
Melia developed a program to deliver comfort items such as a calling card, boxers, and razors to the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (search), as well as provide counseling, job placement, and representation. Having wounded soldiers like Calhoun contribute is a fundamental aspect of the program.
“When I see all the guys together at once, I see what a bond they have,” said Melia’s wife, Julie. “They don’t even have to speak. Sometimes they know exactly what each other’s saying and feeling.”
The veterans from America's latest wars and their aftermath who have come through Walter Reed say veterans from previous conflicts who have turned out to help them have provided an invaluable element to their recovery process.
For Calhoun, the turning point was when a Vietnam veteran came into his hospital room, took off his prosthetic leg, and handed it to him. It was the first time he saw a prosthesis up close and personal.
Veterans from past wars also experience healing in return, and Melia said his work has helped ease some of his nightmares.
“I watched four of my friends die in front of me and came really close to dying myself and the psychological trauma is still with me today." Melia said. "There’s a lot of survivor’s guilt when somebody else goes and you don’t. And you ask yourself the question all the time, ‘Why was I spared and not this guy?’ Well this project has helped me answer that question.”
Most of the vets say they're concerned the population doesn't know what is going on with the war.
“Unless it personally affects you ... you can pretty much block it out if you wanted to. But it’s real. We’ve been there ... and it’s real and it’s dirty and it’s mean and it’s gruesome. People need to realize how rough it really is and not just put it out of their head,” said Calhoun.
Stockwell said American military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are making a “huge sacrifice” by putting themselves in harm’s way. “Talk to someone that was over there. Everyone is always asking what can I do, what can I do? Just be there for someone when they get home.”
They also ask those back at home to be mindful of the type of enemy the soldiers are up against, and demonstrate support accordingly.
"There’s insurgents, and there’s actual Iraqis out to hurt Americans. We understand who it is that we’re dealing with, but I’m not actually sure we know how to go against it — how to actually counterbalance them," said Stockwell.
Calhoun said there's a point for the U.S. troops in the field where they're not fighting a real war, but instead are trying to keep the peace.
"But I guess what people forgot to do is tell the Iraqis we’re not at war, we’re just peacekeeping. Because they’re at war. They’re fighting us like they’re at war," said Calhoun.
Some who spend enough time with them will say a wounded soldier is overwhelmingly more a soldier than he is wounded, and that is the impression the veterans hope to leave on all who cross their path.
“I was lucky,” said Stockwell, who acknowledged her condition could have been far worse than losing her left leg. “You realize how lucky you are... A lot of people don’t come home at all.”
Calhoun said he knows how he wants to be remembered. “I want for people to just know that I never quit.”
“We have two obligations,” said Melia. “One is to help each other, and the second is to let people know that the freedoms that they enjoy every day have been purchased with a very high price.”