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Veterans' New Mission: Taking Care Of Their Own


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. After nine years, the official U.S. military involvement in Iraq ended this month. The withdrawal of U.S. troops has meant a shift in focus for a veterans group who that opposed the war. Iraq Veterans against the War says it will now turn its attention to ensuring that vets are not forgotten as they try to reintegrate into civilian society. Elizabeth Fiedler of member station WHYY in Philadelphia spoke with a couple of those veterans and they begin her story.

MICHAEL HOFFMAN: I knew in Iraq and after Iraq that, you know, I was going to do something.

ELIZABETH FIELDER, BYLINE: That's Michael Hoffman. He served with the Marine Corps from 1999 to 2003 and was part of the initial invasion of Iraq. Sitting in the kitchen of his Pennsylvania home, the 32-year-old artilleryman says he opposed the war but he didn't want to desert his fellow soldiers.

HOFFMAN: For us, it wasn't too much of the direct combat, it was the sense of anticipation, knowing that something could happen at any time. The boredom is worse than the other side because while you're bored you just know that at any time something could happen.

FIELDER: In July 2004 at the annual convention of Veterans for Peace in Boston, Hoffman and a group of other Iraq vets founded the group, Iraq Veterans against the War. Hoffman served as the organization's national coordinator, speaking across the country.

HOFFMAN: I missed my first wedding anniversary for this but I got invited to the U.K. to do a speaking tour there with their Stop the War Coalition.

FIELDER: The group of Iraq vets who'd served in the war and opposed it connected with veteran Michael Allen. He joined the New Jersey National Guard in 2005 after feeling helpless while watching the burning towers on September 11th from the window of his North Jersey high school.

MICHAEL ALLEN: I didn't feel like a hero. I didn't feel like I did anything special. That's the problem with trying to find pride in what you've done. You know so many horrible things that have happened and it's really hard to ever look past those horrible things and think that there was some greater good involved.

FIELDER: Allen says when he saw a video from Iraq Veterans against the War, he realized he wasn't alone.

ALLEN: In joining this organization was finally where I found my first sense of pride of coming home from Iraq. Up 'til that point, I thought I was like the black sheep of the military - coming home and feeling against the war. And then I realized that there's thousands upon thousands of soldiers who feel the exact same way when they come home.

FIELDER: Allen came home suffering from PTSD and he wants the IVAW to focus on making sure other vets know there is help out there. Allen would also like to see the group speak up against other military operations.

ALLEN: There's so many other conflicts that we can be involved with through passivism and diplomacy rather than violence. I just feel like now being a part of this I can be a little more of a hero for hopefully stopping a future war, preventing it from ever occurring.

FIELDER: IVAW co-founder Michael Hoffman says watching the troops pull out of Iraq provides a sense of closure. He says he knew the end of the war would look like this, but it's not what he wanted.

HOFFMAN: I knew ending Iraq - and when we end Afghanistan as well, it's going to be with a whimper not a bang. You know, we, as those who oppose the war, we want to have that moment to celebrate to say we were right, they were wrong.

FIELDER: Hoffman says now members of the group need to look forward - beyond Afghanistan.

HOFFMAN: Some of us are going to remain politically active. Some of us are going to move on to completely different things. But we need to be there for the next generation of veterans, to help them and teach them the lessons we learned in opposing our war, but also be there for them so they don't fall apart.

FIELDER: Hoffman's building a life in the civilian world. He's involved in local politics and is in college studying political science and communications. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Fiedler
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