They return from Iraq and Afghanistan with severe injuries, into an unforgiving economy.
In 2004, Staff Sgt. Jessica Clements, 27, of Ohio was at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center after a bombing in Iraq. At first, doctors doubted she would live, but despite her head injury and persistent pain, she learned to talk and walk and then returned to school.
They call them the "Friends and Family Wars."
It's a phrase that resonates deeply with a small group of Americans: those closest and most directly affected after a decade of service by 2.3 million troops since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But to Americans beyond the friends and family of the 1 percent who have done 100 percent of the fighting, the wars fought by an all-volunteer military do not intrude much on anyone's daily lives. Except for an occasional protest on the Lake Street bridge or other locations across the state, civilian society seems little affected after a decade of war. The shelves are still fully stocked with cereal. Life goes on.
For those closest to the 1 percent, the decade has demanded multiple deployments, multiple good-byes to families. For many, it has meant multiple injuries. For 91 families in Minnesota, it has meant the terrible day when they were notified their loved one would not be coming home.
In the years that will follow, the impact of the wars will filter throughout society as aging, wounded veterans put a strain on resources and tax dollars.
One of the things that sets this generation of veterans vividly apart from previous generations is that advances in technology and battlefield medical care have kept many of them alive after what would have been mortal wounds in Vietnam and Korea, or during World War II.
The U.S. military can now set up hospitals within 12 hours of arriving almost anywhere in the world. It can move wounded warriors from the battlefield to an operating room in minutes. The result is a sustained and astonishing figure: Fewer than 10 percent of those wounded die from their wounds. More than 86,000 patients have been safely evacuated from the war zones since October 2001, 11,300 in 2010 alone, many of them critically injured.
But the meter already is running on those who have survived with injuries that are likely to linger and become chronic. A Pentagon report earlier this year documented that more than 190,000 active-duty service members sought treatment for back injuries in 2010 -- roughly 70,000 more than in 2001 before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. Combat stress was the likely cause of an increase of reported mental disorders by about 170,000 from 2001 to 2010.
The impact is not hard to see at places like Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, the Army's most-often-deployed contingency force. A new warrior wellness center is being constructed for troops returning with injuries, both obvious and invisible. A soldier whose reconstructed face gives no hint of what he used to look like offers a quick tour. Nearby, high-ranking first sergeants suffering from traumatic brain injuries are reduced to the numbing task of carefully spacing the alphabetized names of the recently dead on the base's Wall of Honor.
In Minnesota, the bubble of Vietnam veterans is so huge that the state's veteran population is actually projected to dramatically decrease, from a total of almost 372,000 today to a little more than 194,000 in 2036. Nearly 70,000 of those will be Gulf War veterans.
While the numbers for veterans overall will drop, the number of female veterans is expected to remain relatively stable over the next 25 years at between 23,000 to 25,000.
The Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center saw 88,000 patients in 2010 and expects to peak at 92,700 by 2015 before beginning a slow decline. State veterans homes in Hastings and Minneapolis see the average age of their residents at 54 and predict that will begin to drop. Guard and Reserve recruitment numbers saw an uptick after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with many moving out of the Guard and reserves after their contracts are up -- so they may not appear in VA projections, said Larry Shellito, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.
"They are flowing through that pipeline, they are going to be there. We're growing a lot of veterans right now," Shellito said.
The economic draft
In a dismal economy, the ongoing military conflicts offered a refuge for employment through the last 10 years.
But as Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and troops end their military careers, they will come home to an economy not much more forgiving.
The unemployment rate for veterans who served in the military at any time since September 2001 -- a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans -- was 11.5 percent in 2010. Only Michigan and Indiana have higher rates of post-9/11 veteran unemployment than Minnesota, with 22.9 percent. That compares to 7.2 percent civilian unemployment in July, according to statistics compiled by Congress' Joint Economic Committee.
A Pennsylvania-based online magazine, "G.I. Jobs," paints a positive picture of post-military employment for service members, pointing to teamwork, productivity, and leadership skills that come with a military background. It posts an annual list of the top 100 military-friendly employers. While defense contractors dominate, railroads are hiring veterans, well aware of the 24/7 nature of the military. Frito-Lay, Home Depot, and Sara Lee also are hiring vets. Two Minnesota companies, Ecolab and Xcel Energy, crack the list.
"These companies are committed to hiring military because military talent is good for the bottom line. They wouldn't have these programs in a meaningful way if it weren't a profit driver," said Sean Collins, senior brand manager for G.I. Jobs. "There could be a misperception that high unemployment rates equal an unemployable workforce."
The last ones out
Even as the focus begins on drawing down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the long-term repercussions at home, units of the Minnesota National Guard trained in the afternoon sun recently at Fort McCoy in central Wisconsin.
They practiced the proper way to search suspects and went over the procedure for entering and clearing a village, using a fabricated town with Arabic writing on the walls. They are among the 2,400 soldiers of the 1/34 Brigade Combat Team who departed for Kuwait in July. Many had been deployed before, had their stay in Iraq extended by the surge and now return for a different mission.
This time they will lead convoys of equipment out of Iraq. They are expected to be one of the last units to turn out the lights when the United States officially pulls its military forces out of Iraq on Dec. 31, less than four months from now.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434