Five years have passed since John Turner last wore an Army uniform through the streets of Baghdad. At 6-foot-3, the captain was a large target on the 360 combat patrols he led over 16 months during the worst of the Iraq War.
The pain from what he saw there he wears still: in his furrowed brow, in his firmly closed mouth, in his tear-filled eyes as he walks away briefly to compose himself.
It’s the aching of his fellow soldiers, however, that he hopes to ease through the Veterans Leadership Council, a nonprofit that is leasing space in Butner to provide a haven where struggling veterans can learn how to be self-reliant again.
Turner and four friends have been working on the project since 2009. About $4 million in federal grants and private donations have been pledged toward the $6 million they need to open the facility. But they are having trouble getting the last $2 million in place because of red tape and state budget constraints.
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“If I gave up and didn’t try to do this, and no one came behind me, what about that soldier who might have been amazing but he needed some help, he fell apart, he self-diagnosed and started drinking?” Turner says. “If we give up on this, who’s going to do it? It’s really not an option.”
In 2011, VA hospitals in North Carolina treated 4,237 homeless veterans, Turner says. Across the United States, a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes. These scarred men and women have earned our help.
“The first thing they teach in the military is you take care of your people and you don’t leave them behind,” says Jeff Smith, a veteran of the Marine Corps reserves and one of the five friends. “Are we living by that? For every one combat death in the past 11 years, there have been 25 suicides. So, pretty bluntly, no.”
Through their Veterans Life Center at the Umstead Hospital Complex at Butner, the men hope to offer emergency and transitional housing, job training, support groups, mental health services and various therapies for 400 veterans a year.
They envision the center as a place where area universities, which can solicit research grants, can study Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury and where students in psychology and physical therapy can train.
The men also want the Veterans Life Center to be the umbrella under which the state’s 200 veteran-related charities coordinate and consolidate their efforts.
“If your house is on fire, you call 911,” Smith says. “If you have a veteran who needs help, who do you call?”
The view from 9/11
Originally from Indiana, Turner went into the Coast Guard out of high school. He later got a degree in hospitality management from Purdue University.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was working in a restaurant in Ohio, trying to get the produce ordered, when the terrorist attacks began. The pictures from that day are the main reason he joined the Army, being commissioned as an officer in January 2003.
“Anybody who joined after 9/11, you knew you were going to war,” he says, adding shyly that his enlistment was just one of millions. “But what if 9/11 happened and no one stood up?”
This Memorial Day, these men just want people to reflect on the care that those who stood up deserve.
Ask your legislators why, in a $20 billion state budget, North Carolina spends only about $23 million on the 800,000 veterans who live here, says Smith, a Wake Forest University graduate.
“I’d like the day to mean something other than that,” he says, his eyes filling with anger then tears as he jerks his thumb toward an advertisement asking, “Why celebrate this Memorial Weekend in anything but style? Come check out our new summer tunics.”
Sitting outside a busy Raleigh shopping center, the men take turns answering questions posed to the other, each too humble about his own efforts to speak.
Smith, 45, a veteran of the first Gulf War though he never deployed overseas, doesn’t mention until I ask where he lives that he, in fact, is homeless.
“I had to make a decision last year whether to maintain a home or to continue doing this,” he says, meaning working nonstop to secure the facilities and money needed for the center. “I chose this.”
Turner, 37, demurs repeatedly when asked about himself, saying the focus needs to be on the center.
“Seeing your comrades blown up, waking up every morning to truckloads of dead Iraqis, these are the images these men and women bring home,” Smith says when I ask Turner about the pain he so clearly is carrying.
A lot of soldiers, Turner eventually says, come back and don’t have any problems.
“But some people, maybe the third deployment was too much for them,” he says. “These guys reached their saturation point. What more can you ask of a guy who gave everything he had?”
When we stand to leave, Turner notes we’ve been talking more than 80 minutes.
Somewhere in the United States, a veteran who didn’t get the help these men are so desperately trying to give is gone.