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Many serve, few are chosen, but even fewer find a way to lead. For Paul Rieckhoff, the War on Terror has shown its face in many ways, and at each turn he's become more committed to one politically unifying goal: re-architecting the way those who serve are thanked by the nation they defend.
Through his leadership of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), it's really happening.
It started with "a flat Web page" in 2004, then the publication of a highly acclaimed war memoir. It wasn't long before Rieckhoff's grass roots founding of the IAVA closed ranks with comrades of the Vietnam generation, united Congressmen from both sides of the aisle, while generating significant support from the troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. And thanks to the bold campaign promise and persistence of Virginia's first-term Senator Jim Webb, and IAVA's spirited and relentless campaign, the dream of a new GI Bill has become a reality. It got a presidential signature on June 30.
Paul Rieckhoff today, Executive Director of IAVA
And with that accomplishment comes the promise of a brighter future for those in uniform, no doubt a special morale boost to a nation fighting a multifront war for over seven years.
"With one stroke of the pen, you got a few million folks who can definitely go to college," Rieckhoff said in an exclusive interview with Veterans Advantage. "Dreaming bigger dreams. Sitting on a checkpoint or sitting in a Humveee, everything changed in a day for them."
He may not exactly possess the brass of Washington's top military leaders, or the years of beltway experience of typical Washington politicos, but as Executive Director of IAVA, his chief concern is bringing a voice and human understanding to this war's generation. On the job at Ground Zero in those perilous first hours and weeks after 9/11, patrolling inner city Baghdad in the first months after Saddam's downfall, and now connecting with DC leaders during the war's second presidential campaign, IAVA is not even close to resting on its laurels. It is aggressively planning encores to the new GI Bill, as its Web site publishes a broad agenda of legislative improvements for veterans.
"There are a lot of stereotypes about what troops and veterans are, and I want people to understand the complexity of what we and our families are going through," he adds. For instance, getting a decent college education is a basic American need, for the civilian or military. And yet there's a host of other areas that is challenging the personal lives of our military, and so many of them are in areas that civilians take for granted. In the 2009 Washington season, Rieckhoff predicts that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) will be the themes, with increased benefits and access hopefully the end result.
"The political dynamic has shifted, and people understand that no matter where you stand on the war, you can still support Vets and Troops. And that's where this GI bill will give us a good foundation going forward for other legislation," says Rieckhoff, a staunch independent who is dedicated to keeping IAVA a non-partisan entity.
Paul Rieckhoff on the ground at inner city Baghdad soon after the start of
The Iraq War in 2003
An Army Reservist since 1998, Rieckhoff left Wall Street on September 8, 2001 with plans to travel and complete additional military schooling, but instead returned to his area of employment just three days later, as the attacks on the World Trade Center hit, pitching in as a rescue volunteer at Ground Zero and soon after back in uniform when he was activated for duty.
In February 2002, Rieckhoff began Infantry Officers Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. He graduated in June of 2002 and immediately volunteered for active duty and a place in the pending war in Iraq. Rieckhoff was then assigned as a Platoon Leader attached to the Third Infantry Division, spending almost a year conducting combat operations in Iraq, centered in the Adamiyah section of Baghdad on the Eastern bank of the Tigris River. He was also part of the first reserve component unit in the Army to be awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge since the Korean War.
All thirty-eight of the men in Rieckhoff's platoon returned home alive. Rieckhoff was released from active duty on March 2004 and now serves as an infantry officer in the New York Army National Guard. A 1998 graduate of Amherst College, he speaks and writes proudly of his working class roots, and now lives in New York City.
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
With an eye to the future, Rieckhoff calls the next couple of years critical, as the next president will be tasked with major strategic decisions on our future in the Middle East (he believes both John McCain and Barack Obama are up to the task), and our people will be challenged to learn and understand even more about how we invest in our military.
And especially understand that Vets are just like any ordinary civilian, but realize they are being stressed in extraordinary ways, and therefore deserve extra help. "Our work can bring people closer together and also help people understand what a soldier is like," he says.
"When you get sent to war, you think about dying. What I worried about most was how my death would affect my family. Maybe a clinician will have a technical term for this condition in a few years. It could be called Modern American Soldiers' Guilt Syndrome. It's one of the burdens of the all-volunteer army that makes this generation of American soldiers different from those of generations past."
Rieckhoff knows it's an experience that we will hear much more in the years ahead.
"My life has never been the same, obviously. But mine is just one of two million folks like us who have been deployed since 9/11," he adds. "I felt like a passenger on board this strange history train that was chugging along."
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