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RENO, Nev. — The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said he will push Congress to open camps that may help prepare veterans for the difficult return to everyday life after deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.
These "de-boot" camps, or "Heroes Homecoming camps," could be made a mandatory part of active duty and include a soldier's family, as well as other members of his unit, said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif.
"When you leave the combat zone, you can be in Baghdad yesterday and tomorrow you are taking your kids to a soccer game. There is no time for decompression," he said, pointing to high rates of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, increases in the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury and a skyrocketing suicide rate. "We're releasing a time bomb to the community."
Filner issued a broad apology to Vietnam veterans Wednesday, saying the nation failed them by confusing the unpopular war with the warriors who fought it.
"If we are spending $1 billion every 2.5 days in Iraq, we can spend a few billion on those coming back," he told the 89th national convention of the American Legion.
Filner then asked how many of the delegates at the convention in Reno were Vietnam vets and the vast majority of the crowd of about 5,000 raised their hands.
"I have to say to all of you, on behalf of this country I guess, we let you down," Filner said. "We didn't give you the honor and respect that you deserved and earned.
"Many people in this country confused the war and the warrior. If you didn't like the war, you said, ‘To hell with the warrior.' That was a mistake, a tragic mistake, and we owe you an apology," he said to applause.
Filner said half of America's homeless — more than 200,000 — are Vietnam veterans, more than 200,000. He also said 58,000 Vietnam vets have committed suicide, equaling the number who died in the war — "a terrible, terrible statistic."
"That says we did something wrong as a nation. We didn't do the care that was needed. We didn't welcome all the vets back," Filner said. "We have to say more than we are sorry. We have to do a better job. We have to serve our Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans," he said.
In a speech to the convention earlier Wednesday, Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Nicholson urged American Legion members to provide support to those returning from war with PTSD, and to encourage them to seek help from VA.
"It's important these young heroes who are feeling these symptoms know they are not losing their minds," he said. "It is not something permanent. They are having a common reaction to a very uncommon experience. None of us — spouse, employer, commander — should give any stigma to this."