By Spc. Adam Turner, 1st Cav. Div. PAOMarch 26, 2010
FORT HOOD, Texas - According to numbers released by the Pentagon in 2009, nearly 1.5 million men and women have answered their nations call and deployed in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom since the beginning of the war in 2003.
Already the second longest war fought in United States history, the War on Terror has made this newest generation of veterans one of the fastest growing interest groups in America.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) is the nation's first and largest non partisan, non profit organization set up for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Founded in 2004 to "improve the lives of Iraq, and Afghanistan veterans and their families," the IAVA addresses critical challenges facing veterans, as well as providing a powerful yet focused voice for veteran's affairs on Capitol Hill.
"The group was founded by veterans for veterans," said IAVA executive director and founder, Paul Rieckhoff, a former infantry officer with the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga. "We realized there was a need for a new veterans organization that understood the newest generation of veterans," Rieckoff said.
Since the organizations beginnings online in 2004, IAVA has grown to over 100,000 members from all over the United States and branches of service. Offering multiple veteran's resources, such as how to use the post 9/11 G.I. Bill, navigate the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, family services, organizing local events, and community service projects for veterans to get involved with, the IAVA wants any OIF or OEF veteran to know "they have your back."
"We are working hard in Washington on issues like disability reform, trying to improve the newest G.I. Bill, improving healthcare for female veterans, all aspects of a veteran's life; their concerns, their needs, we want to be that voice," said Reicoff.
During a visit to Fort Hood March 17, Reickoff, a handful of OIF/OEF veterans, and IAVA staff members toured the nation's largest Army installation to spread the word about the benefits the organization can offer, and feel the collective pulse of a military community that has carried a large portion of deployments since 2003.
"It is an honor to be here at Fort Hood with the [IAVA], it is a small way of showing us veterans that this organization is for real, going out in the military community effecting changes that everyone all the way up and down the rank structure can appreciate and benefit from," said former Marine and Edinburgh, Texas native, Ray Leal, who was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 2008.
The IAVA is not only a well organized online archive of veteran's information and resources, it is an "exclusive social network for veterans alone, a Facebook for the OIF/OEF community."
"The most important thing we do is bringing vets together. If you are not active duty anymore and you want to connect with those you once served with in the, or if you want to connect with others who enjoy NASCAR. We have an abundance of ways to organize veterans around interest,' Reickoff said.
Having a veteran's back is paramount to everything the IAVA has worked to obtain over the past six years. There is no issue facing OIF/OEF veterans that the organization is not 'adamantly facing head on.' PTSD, physical and psychological ailments, VA benefits, all facets of veterans affairs have been taken up by IAVA's collective voice.
"We want to be your one stop shop for all veteran's information and affairs, said Reickoff. IAVA is all about having that sense of community you had while you were in and keeping it once you are out."
You can visit the IAVA's website at http://iava.org/, and browse through hours of online resources, connect with a long lost comrade from a previous deployment, donate to the IAVA directly, and see all the ways this newest veterans group has put a fresh spin on veteran's affairs that directly affects the newest members of the veteran movement.