The United States observes Veterans Day November 11, a national holiday to remember and honor military veterans of all wars. Veterans Day dates back to the end of World War I in 1918. This year it falls less than two months before all U.S. troops are due to leave Iraq, and while nearly 100,000 American service members are still in Afghanistan. Veterans of those recent wars have differing views about the U.S. military presence abroad.
Inside a classroom at Santa Monica College, a group of students meet once a week to make friends and for support. They are all military veterans, and for some, such as Monica Scates, the horrors of war are still very real.
“When I came home it took three years to transition after getting out. That was such a feeling of being lost, that we were given no transitional training, no decompression,” she said.
Scates served in the first Gulf War against Iraq 20 years ago. When she returned home she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I lost my marriage. I lost my family, my home,” she said.
Scates eventually received treatment, and has just started college.
Fellow Army veteran Daniel Anderson served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He joined the military shortly after finishing high school.
"I gave myself an ultimatum. If I don't do well in college, I'll join the military," Anderson said.
Another veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Christopher Bellingham, joined the Army for the education benefits that military service provides.
"I wanted some money for college," Bellingham said.
While these three Army veterans had military experience under combat conditions, their views about America’s future course in Iraq and Afghanistan are not the same.
Scates says U.S. troops should not leave Iraq at the end of this year. “To be honest with you, no, because it will be just like what we did during Vietnam. We have to stabilize the people first. They don’t have a stable government. They don’t have a stable force,” she said.
Anderson disagrees. “I think it’s about time that we pull out because they, I think, are ready to stand up take it on their own,” he said.
Anderson says he is not sure whether the fight in Iraq was worth the cost, in either human or military terms.
“I’m glad Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. And there is a lot of corruption, and you can see it. ... But that’s just a much more muddied water, you know. I think that war was a political, strategic war, as opposed to a necessary, on-the-ground fight,” Anderson said.
Bellingham says the U.S. should also get out of Afghanistan.
"There’s no purpose any more. We’ve pumped so much money in that economy that we are their GDP [their entire economy]. We are how they’re making money now. Regardless of when we pull out, they’re not going to be able to sustain to the level we brought them up to. The longer we’re there, the more damage we ... bring," Bellingham said.
But Anderson says the Afghan people need U.S. help against the Taliban.
"I think the people are really oppressed by that terrible organization. I think that one is really worth fighting for," he said.
All three veterans say they don’t think the Americans fully understand what their troops are fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan. In part, they blame the American news media.
"The 'talking heads' on TV ... It gets lost in opinion as oppososed to fact," Anderson said.
For these veterans, their experiences in the military are shaping their future plans.
Monica Scates wants to help homeless veterans.
“I want to work with [troubled] vets, I want to get them off the streets,” Scates said.
Christopher Bellingham wants to conduct research on brain disorders, such as post traumatic stress syndrome.
"Definitely experiencing and seeing my friends go through PTSD, and their emotional coping, piqued a greater curiosity and drive," Bellingham said.
Anderson wants to be a screenwriter, to tell the story of what he saw.
Their experiences in war changed the lives of these three veterans, and they hope that life experience will enable them to change the lives of others - the people they will touch in their future careers.