SOUTHERN COLORADO — Over the past several weeks KOAA News 5 has made a push to bring stories from our veteran community here in southern Colorado.
The effort began after we watched the U.S. departure from Afghanistan this past August. Across the country, many were filled with sadness and disbelief in the speed at which the country fell back into the hands of the former rulers, the Taliban.
Shortly after, News 5 learned from organizations and individuals in the community about the effect this could have on our veterans and their families.
Those with the behavioral health services at Mt. Carmel told News 5 they had at least one veteran call and say the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has triggered mental health issues.
As a result, the KOAA news team in Colorado Springs launched the “You Are Not Alone” project this past September.
We've gotten to hear so many stories from our military members in the community as well as their families. We have tracked down the top five stories that we have been honored to tell during this project. You can learn more about those stories below.
For more resources on how veterans and their families can receive help click here.
1. Following veteran murder-suicide, family says they never received VA benefits for orphaned children
A Colorado Springs family spoke to News 5 about a trauma that still haunts every day of their lives.
A murder-suicide left two young children orphaned, and their grandmother says PTSD caused by combat is to blame.
Those with the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) said every situation is different, but if a suicide can be connected to a service-related illness or injury, then surviving family members could be eligible for certain benefits.
Kathleen Price said that was not the case for her family. For Price, sharing her story is not about receiving VA benefits. She said it is to raise awareness about benefits related to suicides being denied, and to help others who may find themselves in a similar situation.
2. "I would do it again:" Local veteran burned badly in Afghanistan addresses Taliban takeover
A local veteran who was stationed in Afghanistan in 2005 said he would do it all over again, regardless of what he thinks of the U.S. exit that happened back in August.
Retired Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Israel Del Toro Jr. was five months into his Afghanistan assignment when he was hit by an IED.
"I received third-degree burns on 80% of my body. I lost fingers on both of my hands... I was in a coma for four months," said Sr. Master Sgt. Del Toro Jr.
When asked about the Taliban takeover, Sr. Master Sgt. Del Toro Jr. said the first emotion that comes to mind is anger, followed by disappointment and sadness.
"It's not the exit that's upsetting, it's the way you did it. And I think there could've been a better way to do it... That anger can overwhelm some people, that frustration, that disappointment. The question: was it worth it?" said Sr. Master Sgt. Del Toro Jr.
Still, Sr. Master Sgt. Del Toro Jr. said the sacrifices made by military members are worth it, despite the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. You can read more about why he believes this in the link above.
3. "It's a failure on all fronts:" Local veterans react to Afghanistan exit
America's longest war is over, but the decision to pull troops out continues to weigh on the minds of many local veterans.
"I just don't understand why we pulled out the way we did, and it just doesn't make sense, and it just makes me so angry," said Ryan Hemhauser, Founder of Disgruntled Vets and Afghanistan veteran.
For Ryan Hemhauser, he didn't expect U.S. forces to withdrawal in such a chaotic way.
"I thought we were going to leave with dignity. We've been prepping to leave since 2013, that was my job to deconstruct Afghanistan. To watch what happened there unfold just breaks my heart," said Hemhauser. "I didn't expect to leave that way, and it just feels like all of the sacrifice that everyone put in, you know between losing friends over there to then losing friends over here to veteran suicide, reliving the horrors they went through over there."
Other veterans say the withdrawal is long overdue.
"I'm glad we are out, it's about time. I don't think the plan that we had to be there was thorough, we clearly didn't have an exit plan, and anytime a plan involves occupation it doesn't end well. We went there in the beginning for a specific purpose, one that wasn't never going to be accomplished because of the enemy that we were facing," said Jeff Kemp, an Army veteran.
Kemp says terrorism needed to be stomped out, but there wasn't an ideal way for U.S. forces to do it. Kemp says staying in the country wasn't worth more lives, trillions of more dollars, and another war.
"For the veterans who are upset, yes we are upset because our treasure and the things we were asked to do was for what purpose?" said Kemp.
4.Gold Star mother worries for people in Afghanistan under Taliban rule
A military mom who lost her son in Afghanistan in 2011 is talking about the worries she has now that the United States has left the country.
Her son, Army Ranger Sergeant First Class Kristoffer Domeij, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.
She talked to News 5 Anchor Dianne Derby about the fears she has for the Afghan people now under Taliban rule.
"I am bonded in grief to all the people in Iraq and Afghanistan when ISIS did their thing," she said. "My son's death was a violent death but many of those children and wives will see that violent death so I'm grieving for them."
She said that her deep Christian faith helped to carry her through the dark days and nights since then, and it has helped her to find forgiveness for her son's killer.
"I also believe what the Bible says: two days belong to God, the day we are born and the day we die. God chose his death date. We've had some conversations about that. It was way too short but because of my faith I accept that."
5. U.S. Space Command's General James Dickinson reflects on 9-11
This year marked 20 years since the attack on the United States, September 11, 2001, a day that changed the course of American history, yet again. For those who were the targets of the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., they have a unique perspective on what happened that day, particularly those who were at the epicenter of power in this country.
Case in point, General James Dickinson, the current commander of U.S. Space Command at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. 20 years ago, General Dickinson was a Lieutenant Colonel, working in the Pentagon as part of the National Military Command Center, supporting the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others, who answered directly to President George W. Bush on how to assess what happened that day and how to respond.
News 5 Anchor Rob Quirk sat down with the General for a one-on-one interview to hear about how he responded that day and the legacy it's left behind.
BONUS: Colorado man aims to get homeless veterans off the streets by creating unique place for them to stay
A Colorado man is working to help nine veterans experiencing homelessness get off the streets and into a home.
In the United States, there were nearly 40,000 homeless veterans as of January 2019, and Andrew Canales, founder of Houses for Warriors, is hoping to make a difference where he can.
"I want to do everything I can to help my brothers and sisters," he said.
Canales started Houses for Warriors to get homeless veterans off the streets. His mission started with renting a home in Colorado that nine veterans can call their own, at least for a period of time. The home gives veterans a place to sleep, shower and eat while their VA assistance kicks in.
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