As burning Kuwait oil fields spewed smoke during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, David Kriete was there. When troops landed for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, Kriete was among them. As soldiers have been sent to various locales around the globe, Kriete has answered the call.
Today, Kriete is in Phoenix. He doesn't have a job, a car or a home.
Kriete says he served 28 years in the Army and was discharged in 2008. Now 52, he's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and multiple sclerosis.
He has yet to receive any disability payments from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We go over, defend our country and help other countries. I'm all for it," he says. "But good god, when you go over and help other people, I feel like our government should help us. ... I don't deserve a pat on the back. I don't expect them to jump through hoops. I wish I could get my life back and go out and get a job."
Kriete says he's not trying to knock Veterans Affairs, but is disappointed with their progress to date. "When I filed a claim in 2008, the VA rep said, 'We've got you down as 80 percent disability.' It was a big shock to me. I had no idea. If I'm disabled, where are my checks? Why wasn't I notified?"
Susan Schubert has seen situations like that of Kriete before. She is the chairperson of veteran affairs and rehabilitation at the American Legion Auxiliary in Tombstone, and says it can take months or years to demonstrate to the VA that you have a service-related disability.
"(Kriete) is typical of vets who have tried the process and became disillusioned. The VA has its own language and way of doing things," says Schubert.
She says Kriete's lack of success after many tries to receive disability payments is revealing. "That's why every veteran needs an advocate to assist him or her in dealing with the VA and to help access services that are there for you."
Kriete says he was previously unaware that the American Legion could help him and believes available services need to be better communicated to veterans. "I met a 68-year-old veteran, and he had no clue he could use the VA. That broke my heart," says Kriete.
In Arizona, Operation Transition Warrior (www.alr105.org) began in February 2008 to assist disabled veterans returning to Arizona from Iraq and Afghanistan, specifically offering help in the time between discharge and receiving disability payments. The nonprofit is under the umbrella of the American Legion Riders Post 105 in Phoenix.
John DePierro, president of ALR Post 105, says Operation Transition Warrior now assists all veterans in need. "We've taken in about $12,000 so far. We've helped homeless veterans at Christmastime, bought clothing, bus tickets and donated money to a veterans' home in Phoenix," he says.
In addition, Operation Transition Warrior provided Kriete with a $250 Fry's food card. He says a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Sierra Vista also assisted him. "These organizations have been a big blessing. It leaves me speechless for what they've done for me," says Kriete.
JC Reece, vice president of ALR Post 105, says he got the idea for Operation Transition Warrior after watching a news report about an Iraqi vet and his family displaced from their home. He says all of OTW donations go to the vets.
"The military says, 'Here's your honorable discharge, your (separation) form. Thank you very much; have a good day.' It takes months to get (disability). It's an atrocity that our vets get treated that way out there," says Reece.
Tucsonan Vic Ferrara, an 82-year-old World War II vet, also believes more must be done to help the veterans. "These guys put their lives on the line. ... We have to wake up the sleeping dogs in the ... country. Do something to help."
Ferrara says he used up his savings to buy a $1,500 wrap around his taxi cab. An American flag, an eagle and the Operation Transition Warrior Web address adorn the vehicle. He also had 2,000 postcards printed. "There's no end to this. Until I die, I'll keep working on this until everyone is home safe and sound," he says.
Once soldiers are home, the statistics aren't pretty. The American Legion reports more than 400,000 new disability claims are pending at the VA. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans sites an estimate that there are 131,000 homeless veterans on any given night.
In light of these statistics and situations like Kriete's, it's not enough to simply bring the troops home. We also have to work to improve their lives once they are here.