Emily Jo Cureton, The Triplicate

Younger veterans may be unaware of assistance available

When the war started, Reuben Presler was a month shy of his 14th birthday.

He turned 25 today, a married man with a full beard who's served two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the U.S. Navy.

"It's been two years since my second tour. I'm still a lot more high-strung than I'd like to be, and I'm a lot more laid back now than I was a couple years ago," Presler said, recounting the ups and downs of coming home.

About 66,000 U.S. military personnel are still engaged in Afghanistan, the longest-running war in this nation's history.

From 2001 to 2011, 2.33 million Americans were deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or both. More than half of that total have since left the military, according to Defense Department data.

Presler enlisted at 18 and was discharged last March.

Last year, 19 DNHS seniors planned to join, or had already joined the military right after high school, according to a survey completed by graduating students.

Since 2000, 174 DNHS graduates have checked the military service box on this survey.

"There were a lot of kids who went straight out of high school into the military, but that was kind of the last you heard of them," Presler said. "If you went into the military and then came back here, there weren't a lot of people in our age group that were on the same page and understood where you were coming from. Even employers, older people, would find out you were in the military and they would get very political. And I'm not a politician. I don't really like politics ... It's either that, or people want to put you on the spot and toss you up on a pedestal."

Returning home, Presler met both sides of the spectrum right away.

At one airport he was greeted by "a gauntlet" of smiling Boy Scouts, high school cheerleaders and flag wavers. At another, "I wasn't the only one that was spit on just for having a green duffle bag and a short haircut," he said.

Between tours he joined the local chapter of the VFW, a veterans service organization, which runs a canteen in Veterans Memorial Hall on H street.

"When I first came home from my first tour that was one of the only places that I felt comfortable. Nobody wanted to fight, nobody was out chasing tail. It was a bunch of people that were kind of on the same page as me. They didn't want to ask intrusive questions. They just wanted to have a beer and everything was kind of normal."

Christopher Thorpe works in an office just outside the canteen's entrance, asthe veterans service officer for Del Norte County. Here, 16.5 percent of adults are veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Compare that to 4 percent of Californians.)

Besides keeping the coffee on and the door open, Thorpe's office coordinates transportation to medical appointments, pools donations (waterproof coats are especially needed this time of year), connects vets with service organizations and helps them navigate the notoriously complex and slow-moving claims system for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

VA claims can spend anywhere from months to years tied up in processing or appeals. Meanwhile, VA claims and many service needs they don't cover are being taken on by non-profit, non-governmental organizations, like housing assistance and job training offered through the North Coast Veterans Resource Center, which in the past decade has served 908 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Eureka's Redwood Vet Center contracts with Crescent CIty-based counselor and therapist Barbara Lee to see combat veterans from Orick to Gold Beach, regardless of their claim status with the VA.

"I think many younger veterans don't know that we are available because they are not hooked into the VFW, the American Legion and things like that. Those organizations are still viewed as my parents' organizations, rather than something that's meaningful to them ... The services are there, just reach out," Lee said.

She spent two years working on military bases, where she often "didn't even take names or keep notes, as a way to encourage soldiers and families to come in and deal with the issues they were having."

"There is still a real fear that, 'Gosh if I get this label I'm done,' that if recently returning vets seek help it will impact their ability to get employment," she said, stressing that counseling is completely confidential.

The jobless rate for post 9/11 veterans is at 10 percent, two percentage points higher than the national rate, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the Navy, Presler worked in intelligence. A couple of months ago he finally found a steady job pulling green chain for the Brookings saw mill.

"Everybody says they want to support vets, but then nobody really wants to hire you. I think that stems from the whole damaged veteran stereotype" Presler said.

"At the same time, spending a short amount of time in such a chaotic place has such a huge impact on somebody's life for the rest of their life. That is very much a part of them, no matter what they do or where they go."

Staff from the Redwood Vet Center will be in town at Veterans Hall, 981 H St., on Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to present services for combat veterans of all eras. Veterans and community organizations are invited to attend in order to gain a better understanding of how to navigate the VA system.

Reach Emily Jo Cureton at ecureton@triplicate.com.