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Preparing War Veterans For Civilian Life

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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - Soldiers trained to lay down their lives in service to the country are often poorly prepared, experts say, to live the American dream they fight to defend. “They turn it on,” said Sgt. Randolph Byrd, “but they don’t know how to tell us to turn it off.”

After 18 years — encompassing six deployments and a decade in war zones — Byrd will become a civilian in just two days. He said that the Army prepared him for that new life chapter with “pamphlets. They sit pamphlets on the desk and have a meeting for three or four days and you’re off on your way.”

Helping returning veterans find a smooth way into civilian life was the focus of Empowering Our Nation’s Warriors, a summit held at the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University on Wednesday.

“Since 9/11, more than 2.5 million Americans have worn the uniform,” said former President Bush. “They’ve faced down our enemies. They’ve liberated millions and, in so doing, showed the true compassion of a great nation. They are the 1 percent of America who kept the 99 percent safe, and we owe them, and their families, a deep debt of gratitude.”

Through the Bush Institute in Dallas, supporters want to “reduce the civilian-military divide, by breaking down barriers and opening new opportunities for employment and by helping service organizations deliver better results for our vets.”

Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden and the nation’s Second Lady, was also in attendance at Wednesday’s summit, having made support for military families a priority.

Experts say that soldiers who are transitioning to civilian life will face tremendous challenges — from learning new job skills to money management and, of course, turning off that military mindset. “They get out and they’re lost,” stated Ken Watterson, president of the Veteran’s Resource Center in Dallas. “They get out of the military. They don’t have a job reference and they can’t compete in today’s job market. And, within six or nine months, they end up homeless. They have a cell phone and a car and they live in their car.”

Since its opening in fall 2012, Watterson said that the nonprofit Veteran’s Resource Center has helped some 6,000 veterans get a solid footing in civilian life.

“Lucky” Lawhorn is one of their success stories. “This place right here,” said Lawhorn, “saved my life.” The Army veteran used to be homeless, unemployed and battling an addiction when, he said, Watterson and the volunteers at the center gave him “hope,” and reminded him of what he had been — and the kind of man he could become again.

Now a drug-free, hard-working family man, Lawhorn fought back tears as he spoke of reuniting with his wife, and winning the war that matters most. “I’m back home with my wife and kids,” he said.

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