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Former Marine's New Mission: Helping Iraq War Vets

New America Media/Los Angeles Daily News, News feature, Tony Castro Posted: Jun 05, 2009

When he was discharged from the Marines in 2001, Christopher Duarte of Chatsworth felt lost and unsure of his future, especially in the wake of 9/11 and the United States gearing up for an invasion of Iraq.

I didnt know if I should re-enlist -- I was just looking for a mission where I could best serve, he recalls.

Duarte soon found his mission: helping returning veterans like Ramon Contreras of Pacoima navigate through the seemingly endless red tape of a vast government bureaucracy to get the benefits they were promised for serving their country.

We still have cases where a lot of guys come out of the military, and they really come out with no clue. Theres no real guidance from the military, says Duarte, 31, a benefits counselor with the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

When you get out you really need someone to walk you and hold your hand and really tell you, Hey, this is what you need to do to get your life together.

Thats exactly what he did with Contreras in 2004, shortly after his discharge from the military, and today the former Marine becomes emotional in talking about how Duarte changed his life.

Chris looked me in the eye and said this is what you need to do to get your benefits, and he guided me through it, says Contreras. Im indebted to him for the rest of my life. Hes the person who helped me get my life back together after coming home from Iraq.

But Duarte is the first to say that his is an overwhelming job. As the only counselor assigned to the San Fernando Valley, Duartes case load includes all veterans in the valley -- a fifth of all Los Angeles Countys half-million veterans.

And the job is about to get tougher, he fears, with the anticipated discharge of larger numbers of troops as President Barack Obama scales back the war -- a war that in its six years of fighting has left at least 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead, some 30,000 more casualties and cost taxpayers an estimated $10 billion each week.

Many of those Iraqi Freedom soldiers will be returning to Southern California, home to more veterans than any urban area in the country, burdening even more the county and federal Veterans Affairs infrastructure that already has difficulty servicing the vets who live here.

In a worse case scenario, Duarte says, the already large number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles -- estimated to be 25,000 -- could become even greater.

Whats going to end up happening, warns Duarte, is were going to start having Iraqi Freedom veterans homeless. Thats already happening.

Just last week, I had to find an Iraqi veteran and his wife and child a place to stay and try to get him set up and squared away. Its happening already, although not at an alarming rate.

Duarte says he has no statistics of local Iraqi vets who are homeless, but the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington reports that overall all veterans make up 11 percent of the adult population but comprise 26 percent of the homeless on any given day.

As the war marks its sixth-year anniversary Friday, government officials say they are equally concerned about the bureaucracy and the benefit issues which many veterans have complained about. And they say they are working to improve the process.

In normal circumstances theres a helluva lot of red tape in the military, but were trying to get things done better, said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, who pointed out that Congress has raised VA budgeting to historic levels during the last two budget cycles.

Among the biggest complaints, Sherman confirmed, are incomplete discharge papers -- known as DD214s -- which document a veterans' military experience and are crucial to qualifying for benefits.

Duarte said many times returning veterans with incomplete DD214s are denied benefits until they receive amended documents, which can often take months.

Veterans advocates, in some instances, have jumped into the fray trying to help ease the return of Iraqi Freedom troops.

Jerry Jaramillo of the American G. I. Forum, the countrys oldest Latino veterans organization, said his organization has specifically targeted aspects of the governments new economic stimulus package that he said offers tax credits to veterans groups to create outreach programs.

In the end, its going to take veterans looking out for other veterans, he said. What troubles us is to see so many not getting the help they need.

Part of the problem, says Duarte, is that so many veterans returning from Iraq have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In addition, theyre coming home during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with jobs as scarce as decent veteran counseling services.

Theres over 100,000 veterans just in the San Fernando Valley, says Duarte, who is based at the Sepulveda VA Outpatient Clinic in the Valley, and Im the only veterans counselor from the county here. Do you think I get to see all of them? Do you honestly think I can? No chance.

Duarte not only sees new veterans but also represents older veterans for service related injuries, pension claims, general benefits.

I have guys come here and wait hours and hours and hours, he says of his case load. I dont take my lunch. They leave. They come back and wait hours and hours. They leave. How many times is that veteran going to keep coming back before he says, Screw you?

In Los Angeles County alone, we have over 500,000 veterans, and we have 12, 14 accredited counselors."

Nightmare stories from veterans trying to return to civilian life are nothing new, say advocates as well as those involved in the process. The bureaucratic red tape has historically presented a challenge for returning troops, and Duarte says it is the reason he became a veterans benefits counselor.

After his discharge, Duarte recalled, he was clueless about how to get his G.I. Bill benefits and got little direction from the military or the VA.

When I got out of the military and tried to obtain my education benefits and saw how difficult it was for guys coming out and looking into everything... thats where I became an advocate, when I saw how a lot of things were not right, he says.

"I remember going to a (community) college (in the valley) and sitting outside the veterans benefit counselors office, and there was nobody there...

I was the guinea pig for my clients -- thats the way Ive always looked at it. I was the one who had to fail at everything. By failing, I learned he process before I actually became accredited as a counselor.

Today, veterans like Contreras of Pacoima, whose Marine unit entered Baghdad just an hour after Saddam Husseins statue came tumbling down in 2003, swear by Duarte.

Once back home, Contreras went to enroll at Mission College in Sylmar and happened across a chance meeting with a counselor, Duarte, whose intervention made his return experience an exception to what many Iraqi Freedom veterans say they are experiencing.

Contreras says Duarte also helped ease him into the overall benefits system, which became invaluable for him as he began experiencing health problems related to his service in Iraq.

Duarte, 26, recalls that he was in perfect physical condition before his enlistment but that his service in Iraq broke down his body. Falls and injuries left him with bad knees and early signs of carpel tunnel syndrome, and he now suffers from chronic migraine headaches from long exposure to the desert sun.

But being able to get in quickly to be examined by VA doctors allowed him to be diagnosed with those medical issues and qualified for 50 percent service-connected disability benefits.

I wouldnt trade my military experience for the world, he says. It was a great experience and taught me great discipline, and the military takes care of you with good benefits, if you know where to go and have someone like Chris guiding you.

I would say my experience (with benefits), though, has been the exception. Ive had no trouble getting adjusted to the civilian world, but I have friends who have struggled.

But Contreras also wonders if the young veterans themselves arent partly to blame for waiting too long sometimes in admitting they need help with medical and other benefits.

A lot of these guys are stubborn, he says. You know what it is? Theyre embarrassed and, no matter what race they are, their machismo does not let them say they need help.

I tell them, If you come down and do this, youre not only helping yourself, but youre not taking from anyone else, because a lot of guys feel like we I dont need it, give it to someone else.

Duarte agrees that for every success story, there are others who wind up intimidated by the red-tape, bureaucracy and long lines. Something as seemingly simple as how to enroll in college can be daunting to returning soldiers, who often were not on the radar of their high school advisors years earlier.

The typical feeling among many of these young veterans, Duarte said, can be summed up as:

Come on, guy, help me. Ive been a grunt in the military for five years. Can you at least tell me how do I get enrolled in college?

You need someone to literally walk you around, Duarte said. If they dont have someone to be doing that, then whats going to happen is these guys are going to give up on ... college.

But Duarte is determined not to see this happen. He has been working in a clinic for Iraqi Freedom veterans, many of whom, he says, are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Its huge with these Iraqi Freedom veterans, its the biggest thing that Ive witnessed, and thats a big issue because of the amount of tours that theyre doing, he says. Multiple tours. Two, three, four pumps at a time. So obviously its a mental strain. It doesnt matter who you are.

Duarte sympathizes with their plight and, marveling at the resilience of many Iraqi Freedom vets he counsels, counts himself fortunate not to be in their boots.

Its harder for these guys, he says. Its really hard. I couldnt imagine getting out of the military right now how hard it would be.

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