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The war comes home 

For some returning soldiers, new battles lie ahead. Will they get the help they deserve?

click to enlarge Families reunite as the latest wave of Fort Carson-based soldiers return from Iraq. At left: Sgt. Eric Wu - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Families reunite as the latest wave of Fort Carson-based soldiers return from Iraq. At left: Sgt. Eric Wu

You can't tell from looking at him, but Eric Wu lives with the effects of the war in Iraq every day.

Pieces of shrapnel are embedded in his left arm and chest -- fragments of a flashlight that was attached to the muzzle of his gun. The flashlight shattered when it was struck by a sniper's bullet, intended as a more direct hit, as Wu stood on a rooftop in the town of Huseiba, Iraq, one afternoon last October.

Wu, a sergeant in the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Carson, was on watch. His unit had set up Bradley fighting vehicles in the street below, hoping to draw out the enemy.

"It was really quiet," the 33-year-old soldier recalled. "Next thing I know, I was hit really hard on my left side. I basically lost control of my body and fell down."

The shrapnel punctured his chest, fractured one of his ribs and damaged his bicep. Medics, who initially had trouble stopping his bleeding, evacuated Wu to a nearby base camp. From there, he was sent to Baghdad and then to the U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. After four weeks and three surgeries, he was back at Fort Carson.

Reassigned to his squadron's rear detachment, Wu now undergoes rehabilitation with a physical therapist four times a week. He works out at a gym, but is unable to lift anything with his left arm.

He'll need additional surgery to remove the shrapnel, and healing his damaged arm will take time.

Overall, the softspoken Wu isn't complaining. He says he's received "pretty decent" medical care from the Army -- though with thousands of soldiers returning to Fort Carson from Iraq in recent months, getting in to see a doctor has become increasingly difficult. He's strongly considering staying in the Army when his current enlistment expires next year

His biggest regret, he says, is that he didn't get to finish his job in Iraq.

"It was nice to be able to come back," he said, but added, "I wish I could have stayed over there with my soldiers. We're lacking many soldiers there. We have not enough manpower. We're so spread out."

Experience of a lifetime

Wu is among some 12,000 Fort Carson soldiers who have returned from Iraq, most of them in the last couple of months. The soldiers hail from all over the United States. Each of them has a different story.

Many, like Wu, are coping with injuries. Some 3,500 service members have been wounded in Iraq, including about 700 from Fort Carson. Some have minor physical injuries; others are dealing with serious long-term health problems, from brain damage to lost limbs.

And while some have had little trouble readjusting, others are struggling with problems ranging in severity from family estrangement and financial difficulties to alcohol addiction and mental illness.

Some soldiers, though by no means all, have come home only to fight a new battle -- against a government that doesn't always look after its veterans. As in past conflicts, accounts have emerged at Fort Carson and elsewhere of the military neglecting to provide adequate care and counseling or outright denying medical treatment; there also are reports of commanders even punishing service members for seeking help.

Veterans groups have reacted with alarm to such reports and are also concerned about the long-term fate of many veterans from the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system, already considered by many to be underfunded, is about to face an additional burden as tens of thousands of veterans from these wars hit the patient rolls.

"These guys coming back now, that are the heroes, are going to need to get taken care of," said Bob Ensinger, a spokesman for the organization Paralyzed Veterans of America.

As of March 29, 17,800 of the 128,000 veterans who had separated from military duty in Iraq had already sought healthcare from the VA. The number is expected to grow much higher, since most vets from the war have not yet been discharged. Those who are still on active duty have their healthcare provided by the Department of the Defense, though most of them will turn to the VA after leaving the service.

The number also does not include members of the National Guard and reserves who are getting treatment through private health insurance plans, but who may also later depend on the VA. Moreover, for some vets, it will take time before health problems surface or worsen to the point where they seek care. And hundreds of thousands of troops are still serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, or they are on their way there.

"If this were a wave, we're looking at the froth of the wave," said Steve Robinson, director of the National Gulf War Veterans Resource Center, of the numbers reported by the VA. "We haven't really seen the wave yet."

Improvements in body armor have led to a great number of serious, but nonmortal woundings in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thanks to both the armor and a rapid medical-evacuation process, many service members survive attacks that would have killed them in previous wars. However, they're often left with severe injuries such as lost limbs, injured spines, brain trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- a debilitating condition that has afflicted war veterans throughout time, with symptoms including depression, anger, insomnia, nightmares, panic attacks and emotional withdrawal.

For many of these vets, rehabilitation will last a lifetime. Large numbers of Iraq veterans will be receiving VA care and compensation for the next 30 to 60 years.

No one, it seems, knows how much this will cost. While the direct war and reconstruction efforts in Iraq are estimated to have consumed more than $180 billion so far, military economists and analysts have yet to calculate the long-term price tag of caring for the conflict's veterans.

Veterans groups worry the money might simply not be there.

"The American public doesn't understand, doesn't know, that the government in many ways doesn't take care of our veterans," said Dave Autry, a spokesman for the group Disabled American Veterans.

A whole new world

It would be a dramatic overstatement to paint every homecoming Fort Carson vet as suffering and neglected. Still, most have returned to find that their lives have changed at least in some way.

"One of the hardest things is, life has gone on even though you've left," said Matt Cadicamo, a major in the 4th Engineer Battalion of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, who came home in March. "Even though the stress of the combat zone is gone, there's a whole new world to get used to again."

Cadicamo came home physically unscathed, but he had missed out on his son's first birthday and first steps.

His wife, Sheryne, had gotten accustomed to running the family household. Though Cadicamo had been a leader and troubleshooter in Iraq, he had to realize he couldn't just step into the couple's quiet suburban home in northeastern Colorado Springs and take over, or expect things to be done "his" way.

"You're 'the new guy' now," Cadicamo reflected. "You're not the old guy returning."

Cadicamo's boss, Lt. Col. Laura Loftus, at the age of 39 has become temporarily dependent on her parents again.

Loftus was severely injured in a Humvee crash in Iraq on Feb. 6. She was intubated while in a medically induced coma and evacuated -- first to Baghdad, then to Landstuhl, and finally to the Walter Reed Army hospital in Maryland, where she spent a month.

She suffered hemorrhaging on the brain, damaged vertebrae in her neck, a broken wrist, a torn ligament in her knee, and wounds to her forehead. She returned to duty last month at Fort Carson, but she still can't drive herself to work, so her parents have moved in with her to assist her for the time being.

"I'm doing great," said Loftus, who still walks with a limp, wears a neck brace and has her arm in a sling. "I'm healing."

She hopes to ride her mountain bike again soon. "I can't help but be positive."

Also staying upbeat is David Rozelle, who lost his right foot to a landmine. A captain and tank commander in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Rozelle was riding in a Humvee last June when the vehicle hit a buried mine.

"It basically took a cookie cutter, about 4 feet in diameter, out of the floor of the Humvee," Rozelle recalled. "Unfortunately, that's where my foot was."

Rozelle got out of the vehicle and saw blood and bone coming out of his boot. His driver and translator were hit with minor shrapnel, as was Rozelle's body armor. A big piece of metal was also wedged in his chinbone.

click to enlarge Returning Fort Carson soldiers sort through their belongings. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Returning Fort Carson soldiers sort through their belongings.

Within an hour, he was in a hospital in Baghdad, getting his foot cut off above the ankle.

He came back to Fort Carson in July and received a prosthetic foot the next month. Immediately after the amputation, he promised himself, "I'm going to ski again before Christmas" -- which he did.

Tall and athletic, Rozelle now aims to qualify for the U.S. Paralympic ski team. He is working with U.S. Paralympics, based in Colorado Springs, to get fellow amputees into athletic training programs.

He hopes to continue his military career "and go as far as I can."

Debtors at the door

For others, the struggle has been harder.

Some return to find that a spouse has been unfaithful or has turned to drugs or alcohol to cope with being alone.

Joe Henjum of The Home Front Cares, a local nonprofit started last year to help military families in need, tells the story of one Fort Carson soldier who came home and learned that his wife had been caught smoking marijuana in government quarters. The result was an eviction notice, and the newly returned soldier had to scramble to find a place to live.

Other soldiers and their families find themselves in trouble because they lack basic money management skills, Henjum said. Some soldiers have drawn too much "casual pay," or advance pay, leaving their families at home without enough to pay the bills. In other cases, it's the spouse at home who has overspent.

Many soldiers have come home to face disconnect notices from phone and utility companies and major overdraft charges from their banks, said Vicki Kounk, another Home Front Cares volunteer. The stress can take its toll on marriages and relationships, which in turn can fuel depression, substance abuse and domestic violence.

"All kinds of debtors are knocking on the door," Kounk said "That is a major problem, which in turn is going to create a family problem."

The military offers its own assistance programs for soldiers in need, including money-management classes. But many soldiers don't know where to go for help, Kounk said.

Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already begun to call her organization's hotline or are showing up in shelters.

Some of the vets had planned on military careers but were suddenly discharged for medical reasons, and they didn't have a backup plan or any immediate resources to fall back on, Boone says.

There are already 300,000 homeless veterans in the United States, including people who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. The current wars, Boone says, will add to those numbers.

"We're concerned about it, and we don't think anybody's paying attention," Boone said. "We're not prepared as a nation."

Haunted by memories

What weighs heaviest on many returning veterans are the memories of witnessing violence and death.

Forty-four Fort Carson soldiers have died in Iraq. Lt. Col. Loftus lost two men -- Sgt. Keman Mitchell, who drowned in an aqueduct in Kirkuk last May, and Capt. Eric Paliwoda, who died in a mortar attack in January.

"It's a significant loss, and it's very hard on the unit, when you lose a soldier," Loftus said.

When you're far away from home and at war, your fellow soldiers become your family, she explains. But there isn't much time to grieve the dead; after a quick memorial service in the field, soldiers have to immediately focus on their mission again.

Still, "you don't forget," Loftus said. "You think about them all the time."

Tim Meador, a chaplain who served with Loftus in Iraq, says that while many soldiers suppress their grief out of necessity, "you come back home and some of that stuff will start to creep out."

Whether caused by witnessing carnage or simply by the stress of prolonged danger and combat, mental-health problems have reached what some health professionals describe as epidemic proportions among Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

At least 30 service members are reported to have committed suicide while in Iraq or after returning home. One Fort Carson vet, Special Forces soldier William Howell, shot himself to death outside his home in Monument last month, just three weeks after returning.

In a survey of troops in Iraq, released by the Army Surgeon General late last month, some 17 percent of soldiers were found to be experiencing anxiety, depression or traumatic stress.

Of the 12,000 service members from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who had been treated at Landstuhl as of mid-February, between 8 percent and 10 percent had been medically evacuated for mental-health problems, United Press International has reported.

And of the 17,800 who have sought VA care, 15 percent were diagnosed with mental-health problems. Among these, 626 veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Michael Lemke, an Army National Guard soldier from Grand Junction, attends a local support group for Iraq veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.

Lemke is haunted by the memories of what he saw as he and fellow guardsmen secured a prison outside Baghdad. The prison, he says, was used by Saddam Hussein's henchmen to torture and execute political dissidents.

Inside, "there's corpses in every level of decay," Lemke recalled. "Dogs are running around with pieces of hands and legs in their mouths. There was the sweet, decaying smell of rotting human flesh."

Gallows in the prison had ropes that had been used so often, they were smooth and shiny. Outside, Iraqis were clamoring to come inside and search for the bodies of missing family members.

Lemke was sent home in August after he began having trouble walking due to a muscle problem in his foot. He was also experiencing shortness of breath and abnormal blood pressure.

Two months later, he was diagnosed with PTSD. Like many with the diagnosis, he suffers from insomnia and nightmares -- "weird, bizarre dreams," in which people switch heads.

"We get angry easily," Lemke said of himself and fellow sufferers. "We don't like crowds."

He's also feeling jumpy. Once, the sound of a jackhammer outside his barracks prompted him to drop to the floor.

Relating to his three children has been another problem. In Iraq, he says, soldiers couldn't trust children.

"When I got home, I avoided my kids. Later, I just hugged them and cried. There was nothing to say."

Fog of uncertainty

Estimates of how many Iraq and Afghanistan vets might experience PTSD have ranged from around 8 percent up to 20 or even 30 percent. If correct, those numbers could translate into between 960 and 3,600 Fort Carson vets suffering from the debilitating condition.

click to enlarge Maj. Matt Cadicamo, with his wife, Sheryne and 16-month old son Nate. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Maj. Matt Cadicamo, with his wife, Sheryne and 16-month old son Nate.

The estimates are based on past conflicts. According to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, conducted in the 1980s, as many as 30 percent of all Vietnam vets had experienced PTSD at some point following the war, and 15 percent were still afflicted.

About 8 percent of veterans from the first Gulf War, a short conflict with relatively little direct combat, are believed to have had PTSD.

Dr. Matthew Friedman, director of the VA's National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, believes that, due to the violent nature of the current war, the numbers could come in on the high end of the spectrum.

"Almost every day, someone's getting killed," Friedman said. "I would think [the number of PTSD cases] would probably be higher than 8 percent."

While PTSD wasn't well understood at the time of the Vietnam War, the VA now offers effective treatments, including psychotherapy and medication. Early intervention can help prevent many of the "ripple effects" of the condition, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, family breakups, ruined careers and homelessness, Friedman notes.

But many service members don't ask for help. In fact, in the recent survey of troops in Iraq, almost half of all soldiers didn't know how to get such help. Of those who said they wanted help, less than one-third had received it.

About half of all soldiers also believed they would be seen as weak, and might suffer repercussions, if they reported having mental-health problems.

"It's very difficult to get, particularly, military people to seek treatment for PTSD, because many people feel it's going to stigmatize them within the military," Friedman said "It may be a career-buster."

The experiences of some people who have sought help confirm those fears.

Staff Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany, an Army interrogator working for the 10th Special Forces Group based at Fort Carson, suffered a mental breakdown after seeing a dead Iraqi man last October in the city of Samarra.

"The guy looked torn up," Pogany recalls. He only saw the body inside a partially opened body bag for a few seconds, but it "pushed me over the edge."

Pogany doesn't want to criticize his command. But he has previously told reporters that, when he asked for help, his commanders sought to ignore him and told him to think twice about what he was doing. When he kept asking, he was relieved of his weapon and placed on suicide watch. He was eventually allowed to see a chaplain, who recommended he immediately seek help from a "combat stress control team." The team confirmed that Pogany was suffering a normal combat-stress reaction and recommended he get medical treatment.

Instead, Pogany was ruled unfit to perform his job and sent home to Fort Carson. Shortly after, he was charged with cowardice. His attorney, Rich Travis, says he's had to fight for months to get the charges dropped and to get referrals for medical treatment.

In addition to PTSD, Pogany has also suffered from ringing in the ears and anemia, and he was hospitalized for acute pancreatitis and gastroenteritis -- all possible side effects of taking Lariam, an anti-malaria drug given to troops in Iraq. The drug has also been suspected as a contributing factor in mental-health problems among troops.

Doctors have recommended that Pogany see specialists at Walter Reed, but his commanders have repeatedly refused to send him there, according to Travis.

While the Army says that every soldier returning from Iraq receives seven hours of mandatory mental-health counseling, several veterans interviewed for this story say they never got such counseling.

"I've yet to receive that, and I've never met a solider that did," Pogany said.

Pogany is still in limbo, waiting to either get a medical discharge, or to be cleared both legally and medically so that he can continue to serve.

"They've let him languish here in this fog of uncertainty," Travis said. "There's no real justification here for what they're doing."

Representatives for the 10th Special Forces Command did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Punished for seeking treatment

In another high-profile case, Fort Carson veteran Aaron Renstrom, a sergeant in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, has also complained of being denied medical treatment and of being punished for seeking it.

Like Pogany, Renstrom is reluctant to criticize his command for fear of retaliation, according to his father, Mike Renstrom, who lives in San Diego.

Sgt. Renstrom was riding in a Humvee last July when the vehicle hit a so-called "improvised explosive device," a jury-rigged mine. He was thrown from the vehicle and believes he landed on his head.

"The only thing I really remember about it was a big boom, smoke," he said. "The whole affair is kind of a blur."

Following the accident, Sgt. Renstrom complained of dizziness and hearing loss, and medical personnel in the field recommended he be evacuated for treatment. His commanders, however, accused him of malingering and refused to let him go, according to Mike Renstrom.

"If you're not missing a limb or something serious that's real visible, they obviously, from their own conservative standpoint, assume that it's the soldier's problem and not a real medical problem," the elder Renstrom said.

Sgt. Renstrom went without treatment until he came home on routine leave in October, at which point his father urged him to see a physician. The doctor confirmed he had sustained brain trauma. But when he didn't return to Iraq at the end of his leave, citing his condition, he was threatened with being charged as AWOL.

The Army eventually backed off, but commanders have continued to dispute Sgt. Renstrom's condition -- which was confirmed in December by yet another doctor.

"Even in spite of a doctor's analysis, they're accusing him of malingering, and their goal is to send him back to Iraq," his father said.

Lt. Col. Tom Budzyna, a Fort Carson spokesman, said via e-mail that the Army couldn't comment on many aspects of Sgt. Renstrom's condition due to medical privacy concerns.

However, "First-class and complete medical care has been provide [sic] to Sgt. Renstrom by doctors at Fort Carson, and the focus has been to put the soldier's health first," Budzyna wrote.

Meanwhile, recent tests at Walter Reed indicate Sgt. Renstrom may have sustained even more serious damage than what was previously thought, says his father -- who blames the prolonged denial of care.

"Because of the lack of treatment, he'll probably have permanent brain damage for the rest of his life," Mike Renstrom said.

The head trauma sustained by Renstrom is a common condition among Iraq vets, according to Dr. Gene Bolles, a Boulder neurosurgeon who recently returned from a two-year stint at the Army hospital in Landstuhl.

While in Germany, Bolles treated numerous patients for brain injuries. About a dozen of his patients suffered significant paralysis -- but many more had concussions that, while they didn't require lengthy hospitalizations, may have "significant lingering effects," Bolles said.

"They look OK from a distance, but they're not functioning well," he said. In the long term, "they're not going to think as well; they're not going be able to remember as well. They may not be able to read and retain information as well, so they may not certainly do as well in school if they go back -- or they might not be able to hold down employment."

These disabled vets are at a high risk of many of the same problems experienced by PTSD sufferers, such as homelessness and relationship problems, Bolles notes.

While Bolles believes the military provides first-rate acute care to wounded service members, he worries about the long-term picture.

"There's not much continuity of care" for veterans, he said. "They're just bounced around from place to place. Long-term, they get lost in the cracks."

click to enlarge Families of solders welcoming them home. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Families of solders welcoming them home.

Funds discretionary'

Veterans groups share Bolles' bleak view of the future for many injured vets.

The groups have long decried what they say is an insufficient funding level for the VA, which handles most veterans' long-term care.

VA healthcare funding is considered "discretionary," meaning that it's not automatically funded like Medicare. In any given year, Congress can choose to cut the funding or grant inadequate increases.

The VA budget currently stands at $64 billion, of which $28 billion is earmarked for healthcare. Though the numbers have grown in recent years, the funding level hasn't kept up with increasing enrollment and skyrocketing medical costs.

"Each year, we get further and further behind because of the rising cost of healthcare and the rising number of veterans who are enrolling in the VA system," said Ensinger, of Paralyzed Veterans of America. "And now we've got a war on top of that and guys who need to be treated, and that just compounds the problem."

The impact of adding veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to the system hasn't really been felt yet. However, "it will be a significant burden," predicts Autry, of Disabled American Veterans.

As of early March, the Eastern Colorado VA region, which includes Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, had only 72 Iraq veterans on its patient rolls, said Randall Emeterio, the VA region's spokesman. The region has 59,000 veterans from past conflicts on its rolls.

"We've been expecting to see more" from Iraq, Emeterio said. "It just has not been that rapid."

If the first Gulf War is any indication, the numbers will indeed grow over time. Of some 697,000 troops who served in the 1990-91 conflict, about half have since sought care from the VA. More than 169,000 of them have a service-connected medical condition.

Even without an influx of vets from the current conflicts, the Eastern Colorado VA region expects its enrollment to increase dramatically over the next 10 to 20 years, as more aging veterans enter the system and as more veterans move to Colorado from other parts of the country. Iraq and Afghanistan vets, coming on top of that growth, "are going to be a drain on our resources," Emeterio predicts.

The VA is also not well prepared for an influx of many new patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, says Friedman, the director of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Specialized PTSD clinical teams at many VA hospitals and clinics have been dismantled in recent years, while others have been subjected to staff cuts and increased workloads.

"Even before the war in Afghanistan, VA PTSD treatment capacity had been overtaxed," Friedman told a congressional committee last month. Unless more resources are provided, "it is unrealistic to expect that [the] VA will be able to provide enough additional services to new war-zone veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan."

Compounding the problem of inadequate federal funding, veterans advocates say, is a series of failures by the Department of Defense to take good care of military personnel on the front end.

Last October, United Press International reported that hundreds of sick and wounded soldiers were being warehoused in squalid living quarters at Fort Stewart, Georgia. The report prompted a congressional investigation that led the Army to upgrade barracks at several installations, including Fort Carson.

Just a month earlier, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that the Department of Defense had failed to obey a law requiring that all service members receive pre-deployment health screenings before being sent overseas.

The recently released mental-health survey of troops in Iraq also found that medically evacuated soldiers were receiving inconsistent quality of care, with many receiving no follow-up care after being evacuated. A number of behavioral-health personnel reported being undertrained.

Robinson, of the Gulf War Veterans Resource Center, also complains that the Pentagon isn't sharing information with the public or the VA about the extent and nature of health problems affecting vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Without advance information, he says, the agency can't prepare adequately to treat the coming wave of veterans. "The VA is scared shitless, because they don't know."

Winning on the home front'

That's not to say that the military hasn't made efforts to help returning Iraq vets readjust.

At Fort Carson, Army Community Services provides suicide awareness briefings and reunion briefings for soldiers and their families, according to Richard Bridges, a post spokesman. (The head of Army Community Services, Judy Woolley, declined through Bridges to be interviewed for this story.)

Soldiers at Fort Carson also undergo a two-week "reintegration process" that includes extra time off to reacquaint themselves with loved ones, as well as medical evaluations, tax assistance and additional counseling for those who need it, according to information provided by Bridges.

Chaplain Meador says he's excited about a new program soon to be implemented by the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, called Iron Horse University. The program, he said, will include classes on relationships, child-raising, managing finances and "growing through tough times."

"I characterize it as, 'winning on the home front,'" Meador said.

Still, veteran advocates say that in the big picture, the U.S. government isn't caring adequately for service members and vets.

"You've got to be prepared to take care of these folks, because war hurts," said Rick Weidman, government affairs director for the organization Vietnam Veterans of America. "This is a cost of war. This is a national defense cost, and it's not being faced up to that way."

Robinson said it's "un-American" to only care about military personnel when they're seen as useful.

"This nation has a responsibility to take care of every single soldier who gets injured in this war," he said. "America needs to wake up."

The cost of war

In the end, whatever the toll, Fort Carson vets interviewed for this story said they believed their efforts in Iraq had been worthwhile.

"My opinion of it is, if we don't fight [the war on terrorism] now in Iraq, my son will be fighting it here at home," Capt. Rozelle said.

"War is always a bad thing," said Sgt. Wu. "There's always going to be losses. [But] at the end, the payoff is worth it."

Many vets say their greatest satisfaction came from working alongside Iraqi civilians to re-establish local government and infrastructure, from reopening schools to getting utilities back on line.

"Soldiers are spending a lot of time doing those kind of things, and they're proud of what they're doing," said Lt. Col. Loftus.

Maj. Cadicamo gets most excited talking about how he helped organize democratic city council elections in the town of Al Dujayl, north of Baghdad. Spc. Paxine Buck, also of the 4th Engineer Battalion, fondly recalls helping build a soccer field and playing a match against local Iraqis.

"I wouldn't mind going back," Buck said.

Sgt. Lemke, meanwhile, is proud that he helped stop the torture and executions in the prison that his unit secured.

"I said to myself, this is why we're here," Lemke recalled. "This is why Saddam needed to go."

The soldiers are also thankful for the warm reception they have gotten upon returning home. While many Vietnam vets felt blamed for U.S. failures, local Iraq vets say people have come up to them and thanked them for their service.

Coming home, Rozelle said, has been "the most incredible experience of my life."

capsule

The Home Front Cares, a local nonprofit organization, helps Fort Carson soldiers in need, as well as their families. For information on making a financial donation, call the Pikes Peak Community Foundation at 389-1251. To volunteer or contribute goods or services, or to request assistance, call 447-3838. You can also visit the organization online at www.thehomefrontcares.org.

The hotline number for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans is 1-800-VET-HELP.

  • For some returning soldiers, new battles lie ahead. Will they get the help they deserve?

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