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From the other side 

Former soldier fights a 'community problem' with El Pomar

click to enlarge SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton

Terrance McWilliams joined the Army in 1976, just after the Vietnam War ended. He served through conflicts in Korea, Panama, Granada, Iraq and Afghanistan, rising eventually to become division command sergeant major at Fort Carson before his retirement last year.

My, how attitudes toward troops have changed in that time.

"During the Vietnam era, we didn't want to wear our uniforms" in public, McWilliams says in a rich baritone.

Now, soldiers in uniform will get thanked in the streets, even by people who disagree with President George W. Bush's foreign policy.

"They understand it's not the soldiers making those decisions," he says.

A big turning point for attitudes came with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Since then, a host of nonprofits and agencies have sprouted up to help soldiers cope with life after the military. As director of military support for El Pomar Foundation, McWilliams, 49, tries to coordinate between the community and the military to see that the soldiers are cared for.

"It's as if I haven't even left the military," says McWilliams, a Florida native who's lived in Colorado Springs 12 years. "I've just changed uniforms."

McWilliams is part of the CIRCLE Network run by the Brain Injury Association of Colorado. In Colorado Springs, the group is focused on strengthening the system of care for soldiers with brain injuries.

One of his particular worries is soldiers returning with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that has them reliving horrors they saw in combat. This war injury runs headlong into civilian life when, say, police are called to a domestic disturbance involving a PTSD sufferer and show up with a SWAT team which can trigger a violent response.

"As I look at it, it's not just a military problem, it's a community problem," he says.

The reversal in attitudes about caring for combat veterans has been swift, McWilliams notes. But while that's fortunate for those soldiers who've fought during the 21st century, others injured long ago remain outside the growing safety net.

McWilliams calls this last issue a "political hot potato."

"It's really hard," he says, "to tell a nonprofit who to support and who not to support."

  • Terrance McWilliams has seen attitudes toward troops change over the years.

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