On Wednesday, former President George W. Bush will speak at the World Ag Expo in Tulare.
He's coming to the Valley to talk about a program called Ag Warriors. Its one of many programs designed to help our returning veterans get back into the work force.
With the official U.S. combat operations now over in Iraq, thousands of our veterans are coming home and finding a job is just one of the many challenges they'll face.
Some are grappling with deep physical and emotional scars from the war.
In a CBS47 Special Report, we take a closer look at how the Fresno VA Hospital is transforming lives, while giving our veterans one last mission.
From the Lemoore Naval Air Station, to Fresno Yosemite International Airport, our troops are coming home from Iraq. 23,000 more will return this summer.
But as the glow of a hero's welcome fades, too many of our veterans are still battling the eerie shadows of war: nightmares, unemployment, post traumatic stress disorder,
Divorce, lost limbs and sometimes -- lost hope.
The suicide rate is staggering, about 6,500 a year.
Justin Bond of Hanford is a husband and father of three. The 10 year Army veteran sergeant lost his left leg to an AK47 attack in the battle of Fallujah.
He now gets around on a prosthetic leg and a Segway.
Like many of our returning Valley vets, one of Justin’s first stops was the Fresno VA Hospital. They strive to restore hope, but it takes time.
Staff Sergeant Violeta Laddaga served two tours of duty in Iraq - 2003 and 2008. She was a highly trained M.P. Now she’s a police officer at the Fresno VA Hospital. “I've yet to meet anyone who comes back exactly the same,” said Violeta.
Her journey included flash backs, and an overwhelming sense of guilt for those she left behind.
Back home in the Valley, she faced the enemy within. “It was guilt. I was scared… It is extremely difficult to remember – Oh, I'm driving on 41. I'm not in Baghdad… Oh, that's trash on the side of the road, it’s not an improvised explosive device,” said Violeta.
Like many returning veterans, Staff Sergeant Violeta Laddaga got some brief help at the VA Hospital. “Did I ever want to go into therapy? No. But did I do it for my loved ones? Yeah,” said Violeta.
Sergeant Justin Bond says the psychological warfare for an amputee is intense. “Mentally, they think they can't do anything, so they check out of life,” said Justin.
Treating psychological wounds is the cornerstone behind a $40 million expansion at the VA Hospital.
Close to twenty additional mental health professionals have been hired to help staff the facility when it opens in March. But the expansion goes beyond the hospital walls. “The exciting thing about TeleHealth is it allows us to bring care to the patients’ community,” said Registered Nurse Kathleen Humphrey.
Humphrey spearheads an online program called TeleHealth, which expands the hospitals reach into rural areas like Oakhurst.
Using online video clinics, doctors can make the modern day equivalent of a house call.
Without leaving his office, Dr. Hani Khouzam can virtually reach any patient or group of patients with post traumatic stress disorder, and reassure them that what they're going through is not only common… but treatable.
TeleHealth saves time and money and is easier on the patients, which is also the idea behind some phone apps. Yes, there's an app that.
But VA program administrator Lydia Duarte knows there’s no app for some of the unexpected ravages that women face in war. “We have some groups that specifically focus on military sexual trauma.” Rape – but not at the hands of the enemy, but by their own comrades.
From lost trust, to lost limbs, to lost hope… it seems insurmountable. And yet the VA Hospital can always count on one thing: This is the home of the brave and these vets are trained to overcome obstacles.
Sgt. Justin Bond has discovered his new mission: helping other amputee vets. He coordinates trips to the zoo, scuba diving and even skydiving trips. Perhaps his most ambitious plan to date is a cross country trip this April for wounded vets on donated Segways. “We're going to go from Monetary to Jacksonville, Florida,” said Justin.
Justin encourages his wounded comrades to fulfill their dreams. “What we found is if we just give them a new mission in life, it fixes it. So we give them something to wake up for tomorrow.”
Sergeant Laddaga is moving forward too. She's happily married, attending the police academy and after just a few months of counseling, she gently told her counselor, “I don't think I need to talk to you as often anymore and she kind of laughed and said, ‘then I've done my job’”
That's what they do everyday at the Fresno VA Hospital -- their job.
“To care for those who shall have borne the battle.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
The long-term cost of caring for our vets from Iraq and Afghanistan isn't cheap, either in blood or treasure. So far, over 6,300 have died. 46,000 have been wounded, and 600,000 veterans have filed for VA disability benefits. Some estimates put the long term care for our vets at over half a trillion dollars over the next 40 years.
There are dozens of organizations out there helping our vets, including Segway, which has pledged to give away 1,000 Segways to our wounded vets.
Click the related links for some of the companies who are there to help.