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Queens makes preparations for returning Iraq vets

While Queens troops are still stationed in the Middle East, veterans' groups and government offices are preparing for their return to ensure service members have the support and information they need to rejoin the community.

From details on health and psychological needs to community support, veterans and department leaders discussed many of the issues that will affect the servicemen and women once they return at a meeting at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Springfield Gardens sponsored by Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton).

Sanders, himself a retired Marine, dubbed the April 23 meeting "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" in an attempt to remind the community that troops need more than just a thank you and a parade to resume their lives, he said.

"For some of us, we did get those things, and then the music stopped," Sanders said of the welcome home celebrations. "The veterans are left to figure things out for themselves, and most do, but there are enough of us who fall through the cracks."

Among the most important things neighbors can do to help a military person is to provide them with a sense of community by talking one-on-one, creating a veterans' information resource center or urging the service member to join a veterans' organization, the meeting's panel said.

"We need to reach out to men and women when they come home and try to get them to express their ordeals and not let them stifle it for years," Sanders said. "The real struggle for veterans comes when we come back. The struggle for veterans is too often a lonely struggle when they get back."

Daniel Friedman, assistant director of the U.S. Department of Labor, suggested compiling pamphlets and information on various veterans' groups, programs, employment, housing and more at community sites such as libraries and churches.

"These reservists left their full-time jobs, they left their families, men and women left their children," Friedman said of just one veterans' group that could benefit from the information. "They're looking to resume their lives."

Others worried about families of the service members who may need help until the troops return.

"We have a lot of families right here, right now that need our support," said Ben Thompson, New York state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "If a wife goes overseas, the husband, maybe for the first time in his life - he's raising the kids. Maybe he needs someone to come over and watch the kids for three hours so he can watch a basketball game. That's where we come in as veterans and as a community."

Pat Toro, president of the Queens chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said his group has opened its doors to the families twice a week. People can visit their offices at 88-61 76th Ave. in Glendale Mondays and Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. to get access to a computer and just talk to people who understand.

"The families can come and meet and e-mail their family members if they don't have other access to computers, or we'll sit there and talk to them," Toro said. "Nobody knows more about what they're going through than we do."

Queens residents can also get involved by volunteering to help veterans from previous wars who may be suffering, including those getting treatment at the St. Albans Veterans Hospital, said Bill La Mariana, a chaplain at the institution.

"Our volunteers are dying off," he said. "We don't have enough volunteers to take the veterans down to religious services. You need to point a finger at yourself and say I'm going to do something."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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