Help for heroes

Richard Cogswell, who served in Afghanistan, was among veterans who attended the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center Welcome Home 2009 event Wednesday at Patriots Point. The event was designed to provide assistance with jobs, health, housing, education and

MOUNT PLEASANT -- Marine Cpl. Robert Gass was racing to defend an Iraqi bridge from insurgents when a 13-year-old suicide bomber plowed into the side of his Humvee and unleashed a fiery explosion.

That blast on Mother's Day 2005 sent a fuel line tearing through Gass' forehead and landed him in a hospital with severe burns and a traumatic brain injury. The Moncks Corner resident has spent the last four years recovering from wounds that left him with shuddering headaches, scars and ringing in his ears.

But as Gass stood on the hangar deck of the aircraft carrier Yorktown Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by hundreds of fellow veterans, he felt a sense of homecoming and appreciation for his sacrifice.

Gass was among more than 300 veterans who turned out for the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center Welcome Home 2009 event for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The event, held at Patriots Point, was designed to educate veterans about their benefits and connect them with help in finding jobs, educational

opportunities, legal and housing assistance and health information.

"I just wanted to be here today, to see some friends I hadn't seen in awhile," said Gass, a 26-year-old Purple Heart recipient. "It makes me feel pretty good to see all of this. The guys who came from Vietnam didn't have anything like this when they came home."

This was the second year for the event and the first time it had been held on the Yorktown. The five-hour gathering was a way of thanking veterans for their service and helping them make a successful transition from combat to civilian life, said Jan Bolger, the VA hospital's seamless transition manager.

Veterans from all eras and their families were welcome, and they were treated to free tours of the Yorktown and the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum, among other activities. The biggest draw, however, seemed to be the job fair. Some 35 employers, from Home Depot to local police and fire departments, were on hand. State employment counselors made about 250 job referrals in two hours' time.

Steven Franke, 32, of Goose Creek, was among those looking for work. After serving a tour in Iraq and another year helping to guard the Mexican border, the Army National Guardsman is looking for a stable job to support his family. He pushed a baby stroller from booth to booth speaking with potential employers as his wife carried their infant son.

"This is a great idea," Franke said. "It's almost like an additional benefit for what you gave up for your country, like an extra pat on the back."

Charles Maness of Summerville returned home in May 2008 after serving in Afghanistan with the Army National Guard. He found the economy in tatters and few opportunities to be had. He finally landed a low-paying job as a drug store cashier, but he hopes to do better.

"I had really hoped to go to college first," the 21-year-old said. "But it's hard just to live on what I'm making now."

Army National Guard Capt. Mike Dovey of Mount Pleasant said a number of soldiers who returned home with him from Afghanistan last year found the jobs they left behind were no longer there.

"These are 19-year-olds with wives and kids," he said. "They've got no jobs, no health insurance. It's scary."

Help finding jobs is the biggest need counselors are seeing among returning vets, VA social worker Ashley Fogg said. Counselors are working to help these veterans readjust to society, offering assistance with everything from employment referrals to baby-sitting options. Since many of those returning are between the ages of 18 and 36, the VA plans to use Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites to inform these veterans about the service and benefits available to them, she said.

Fogg said she sees a resiliency among today's vets, a great desire to get help and move beyond their wounds and wartime experiences. Gass, for example, has worked to overcome the challenges posed by his injury and is studying to earn a computer degree at ECPI College of Technology. "He told me, 'I don't want to be a lifelong patient,' " she said.

Leroy McDonald, 52, of Georgetown, can relate. A former Army National Guard squad leader, he served a year in Iraq dodging roadside bombs, insurgent ambushes and other perils while guarding convoys. It was a nightmarish existence that left its mark with sleepless nights, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

The strain got to be too much for some, including a 27-year-old member of McDonald's battalion who shot himself in front of his wife and kids when he returned home. McDonald chose a different path. He sought counseling and help, and he is now active in aiding others through the South Carolina Combat Veterans group.

"Veterans coming home now can get everything they need if they ask for help," McDonald said. "There are a lot of services now so they don't fall by the wayside like the Vietnam veterans did."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.