This Saturday will mark 20 years since September 11, 2001, when 2,977 people died after terrorists flew two airliners into the World Trade Center. Two other airliners were hijacked that day; one crashed into the Pentagon, while the fourth, United Airline Flight 93, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to regain control of the aircraft. What resulted was two generations of Americans sent to a series of wars in the Middle East, thousands of American lives lost in those conflicts and countless civilian casualties in these now war-torn countries.
The effects of America’s “nation-building” projects in the first few years of the new millennium continue to reverberate nearly two decades later. Not only have Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from insurgencies and instability since the invasion of their countries, but veterans in the U.S. have had to cope with the effects of their experiences from combat that often go unseen.
“I’ve had a lot of brothers and sisters who have been through both Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 20 years. I think the challenge for so many vets—because vets have survived injuries that were catastrophic—is trying to find ways to come back and live with how situations like recent events in Kabul have affected their lives,” retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant and Chief Executive Officer of Veterans Integration Center (VIC) Bobby Ehrig said in an interview with The Paper.
The VIC is the largest provider of veteran services in the state and the only nonprofit that helps homeless veterans. As a veteran himself now serving other veterans, Ehrig has had an intimate look at the traumas affecting New Mexico’s military. “The challenge is not necessarily during the times of conflict, or while they’re in the military, it’s after the military and having to reintegrate into a society where the priorities are much different than whether or not you’re going to live or die each day in a combat zone,” Ehrig said.
New Mexico also presents a unique set of challenges, given the state’s size and limited resources. Ehrig noted that New Mexico is one of three states still seeing an increase in houseless veterans. “In New Mexico, it is a significant challenge, not only because there are limited resources focused on veterans needs, but the state does not fund anything in a number that would solve the veteran crises.”
New Mexico hosts a large population of older veterans, many of whom have been coping with decades of trauma from what they saw in combat. “In New Mexico, because it is an older veteran population, you are seeing a lot of veterans who have had a systemic history or even decades of coping with the struggles that they have. Not all of them are alcoholics or addicts like everyone would like to perceive,” Ehrig said.
A focus of VIC is treating mental illness that many veterans developed after their time in combat. “The largest struggle, I think, is probably about mental illness. About 73 percent of the [veterans] we served last year had some form of mental illness. And that can be PTSD (combat and noncombat), also anxiety disorders and other traumas,” Ehrig said. Ehrig also noted that what is different about the generations of Americans sent to Afghanistan and Iraq over the past two decades compared to older generations of veterans is that the awareness of the challenges and traumas veterans face when they return to civilian life has increased exponentially. Ehrig estimated that the number of nonprofits dedicated to veteran services has increased nearly threefold.
The VIC plays a pivotal role in transitioning houseless vets to permanent housing. Their services include either temporary or permanent housing, mental health counseling, clothing donations, a food pantry and nutritional program, and free transportation for veterans and their families around Albuquerque.
More information can be found on the organization’s website for anyone interested in their services or donating to the organization.