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Wounded Veterans Face Hurdles Back Home

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

More than 2,000 American soldiers have died in Iraq. Another 15,000 have been wounded, many severely. These disabled veterans face many obstacles when they return home: physical and emotional scars, strained family ties and unemployment. On this Veterans' Day, we'll talk with two men who have served their country.

Retired Staff Sergeant Eugene Simpson Jr. of Dale City, Virginia: He was wounded when an explosive device went off under his Humvee last year in Iraq. Also with us: Joseph Violante. He served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam and is now national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans.

Gentlemen, welcome.

Staff Sergeant EUGENE SIMPSON Jr. (Retired): Thank you for having me.

Mr. JOSEPH VIOLANTE (National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans): Thank you.

GORDON: Mr. Violante, let me start with you. The idea that so many people now are coming home maimed ofttimes is not looked at by Americans. We often look at the death toll and forget about the people who have to come home to an entirely changed life and existence.

Mr. VIOLANTE: You're exactly right, Ed. It's unfortunate, because that's all the information, basically, the American public is given is the number of deaths. And the number of wounded or the number that are coming back either disabled or injured is just basically an unknown figure. And there are large quantities of them and they are trying to assimilate back into civilian life.

GORDON: And that, unfortunately, is what you are facing now, Mr. Simpson. Talk to us briefly, if you will, about your life and what you have had to face since coming home.

Sgt. SIMPSON: Since coming home, it's--you have numerous things that you're going to face coming home. You have the--will people accept you with your new injury? I mean, it's so, so much--so much time and effort comes into new things you've got to add to your life to adapt to your new injury. And, I mean, people take these things for granted. Time again...

GORDON: We should note that you're confined to a wheelchair. You took shrapnel to your stomach, shattered bones in your leg and feet, and severed your spinal cord.

Sgt. SIMPSON: Correct.

GORDON: What's been the biggest challenge for you, emotional or physical?

Sgt. SIMPSON: Emotional. I mean, physically, I'm strong enough to do everything that I was doing before I was placed in this wheelchair, but it's the knowing that--how much better you can do something or how much more you've done in the past that limits--the limits you have now--it bothers you, you know? And there's--not to say that it's daily, but at least one time during the day, you're bothered.

GORDON: Mr. Violante, I am sure that you have heard this story echoed many, many times.

Mr. VIOLANTE: Yes, it's unfortunate. You know, for the last decade or so, our government has been trying to get an easy transition from the military to civilian life, and unfortunately, it's just not working out. And I'm not quite sure what the obstacles are, but there are certainly a lot of obstacles in front of these young men and women who are coming home disabled, trying to get back into some type normalcy.

GORDON: Mr. Simpson, you're faced with, obviously, living your life out in that aspect, from a wheelchair now. How has it affected your family? We should note that you're a father of four. You're married to your wife for six years and you're, at this point, living with your parents--obviously, an entirely different life than the one you led before you went. How has it affected your family, your relationship with them?

Sgt. SIMPSON: Well, of course, it's affected my family. This is a major step. I mean, they also have to go through, you know, this with me. They're not living it, but they go through it every day, also. I mean, but as far as your kids, they don't see any different, you know? They know the father. They know Daddy. They don't know the wheelchair. So, I mean, as long as you provide that love and support, it kind of makes the family stronger, you know? They go through so many more barriers, it brings family together.

GORDON: And what about your wife?

Sgt. SIMPSON: She's taking it better than I thought she would take it, you know? From time to time, she goes into her shell, you know, but that's what--that's expected. But overall, she takes it pretty well and it makes her a strong woman.

GORDON: Let me ask you this. When you sit at home and you think about where you've been--you've served your country. You've been saluted, I understand; when you came home, your entire neighborhood was out to greet you. Yet I know that you've heard so many critics of this war suggest that you should not be in that wheelchair by virtue of the United States not being over there and fighting this war. Do you have any regrets now that you went over and that the United States has been involved in all of this?

Sgt. SIMPSON: No, I don't have any regrets. When I signed up to go in the military, this was one of the things that came along with it. And so no regrets at all. I mean, I'm here to do things for my country, and that's what I did. So I'm fine with that.

GORDON: Mr. Violante, we hear this from so many soldiers who come back to changed lives, yet there are laypeople who just don't understand this. Veterans often are a different cut, sometimes a cut above most of us.

Mr. VIOLANTE: You know, you're absolutely right. I mean, when you hear individuals like that who--in fact, you know, you can talk to some triple amputees who would do the same thing all over again. It just--it's amazing. I think that, you know, the interesting thing is, back when I served during Vietnam, a percentage of the American public couldn't separate the war from the warrior. I think today, regardless of whether America supports the war in Iraq or opposes it, they still support the troops. And that's a good thing. You know, they're able to make that distinction, that these young men and women are over there, doing something their country has asked them to do. And so they can still support them and not support the war, and I find that an interesting comparison to when I was in.

GORDON: Mr. Simpson, let me ask you quickly, if you will, what of when you hear about proposed cuts to the military, and particularly services for veterans and particularly disabled veterans? That's been the talk often; over the last year, strong lobbying efforts to make sure that those dollars aren't taken away, but the fight continues. What about when you hear that?

Sgt. SIMPSON: Those services are needed. They're cutting services, and how can you cut something that's growing every day? Veterans out there every day are needing more support, and we're getting lack thereof. What we should be doing is providing more for these services.

GORDON: And, Mr. Violante, I know that that's a fight that you're knee-deep in. Talk to me about--with about a minute left--what you've been doing to make sure those monies stay in place.

Mr. VIOLANTE: Well, you know, I've been in this town, in Washington, DC, for 20 years, and I've never seen so many attacks against veterans' programs. And, you know, we're lobbying right now to ensure that the VA has an adequate level of funding for health care. Our benefits are under attack. There's a commission out there looking at them. There's a study by DOD. And I find it outrageous that our government would be trying to cut back or trying to change the benefit system while we're at war. It's just horrific.

GORDON: Well, hopefully, those dollars will stay in place, and the help that is needed for so many veterans will remain. Joseph Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, thank you. And Retired Staff Sergeant Eugene Simpson, back home--we salute you, sir, for your service, and we wish you and your family the best.

Sgt. SIMPSON: Thank you.

Mr. VIOLANTE: Thank you, Ed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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