Veteran respect, help, urged

Of all the words bandied about during the recent election season, very few were about American military service members now coming home from combat in the Middle East.

So to mark today's Veterans Day observances this year, La Cañada Flintridge veterans are calling on their neighbors to bring their youngest brothers and sisters in arms back into the public conversation.

"If you don't know anyone in the service, you tend to be oblivious to the wars," said George Kritzman, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War who has lived in La Cañada Flintridge for 38 years.

"These guys are sacrificing their lives and getting wounded," said Kritzman, who was shot in the arm and suffered a debilitating bullet wound to the leg in Korea. "Let's give them some respect when they come home."

Respect, in this case, isn't just a state of mind. For local veterans, the term also means an awareness of and advocacy for veterans' needs, including medical and psychological care, emotional support, job training, education assistance and assistance for their family members.

Marine Capt. Andy Graham, who served three tours in Iraq after graduating from La Cañada High School in 1997, sees the issues firsthand as a congressional fellow dealing with military affairs for Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

"We've seen the full spectrum. We have guys who have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and who've gotten out and are unsure how to move on. There are those who need help with job skills or job placement and accessing G.I. Bill benefits," said Graham. "You have the older generation aging and developing chronic ailments and a tremendous influx on new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who are still very much in that transitional period assimilating into civilian lives."

Graham, 31, and Kritzman, 87, are at the bookends of La Cañada Flintridge's small but relatively well-connected veteran community, which on the younger side has experienced more than its fair share of loss.

La Cañada High School graduate and Army 2nd Lt. Todd Bryant — "a great friend; we were the two smallest guys on the football team," Graham recalled — was killed in October 2003 near Fallujah, Iraq.

After leading Bryant's memorial service, friend and Marine Lt. Andrew Torres died from cancer in April 2004 at 23. The Flintridge Preparatory School graduate was the son of Vietnam veteran Lt. Leonard Torres and Valley Sun columnist Anita Brenner.

Marines 2nd Lt. James "J.P." Blecksmith, also of Flintridge Prep, died Nov. 11, 2004, in Fallujah.

"We should always remember those who've given their lives for their country and support those coming back home. This isn't just a day off from work," said Linda Bryant, Bryant's mother.

Bryant's father, Larry Bryant, met Linda while both were serving in the Air Force. Their eldest son, Tim Bryant, is a lieutenant in the Marine Corps and sister Tiffany is an Army captain. Tiffany and Todd both attended West Point.

In honor of their son, Linda and Larry Bryant plan to attend a Veterans Day memorial service at Riverside National Cemetery.

Closer to home in Pasadena, the Vietnam Veterans of American Chapter 446 and the Pasadena Council of the U.S. Navy League have arranged a Veterans Day observance and flyover of former military aircraft from 10:30 to 11:15 a.m. today at Memorial Park, near Raymond Avenue and Holly Street in Old Pasadena.

Also on the Bryants' minds is Marine Capt. Chris Peterson, an Iraq veteran now on special assignment in Hawaii who was close to Bryant while both attended La Cañada High School — showing just how intertwined the lives of the city's youngest veterans and their families are.

In fact, brothers Capt. Christopher and Lt. Mathew Wehri, whose parents live in La Cañada, both went to Iraq with the Army.

But not all young people returning from the battlefield have empathy so close at hand.

Joe Puglia, a Vietnam veteran who experienced firsthand a return home to little understanding or encouragement, counsels some of these young men at Glendale City College, often for struggles with PTSD symptoms.

"They are coming back to a society that doesn't always value the service of a soldier, and to a bad economy. There's a lot of factors playing into feelings of being misplaced and unappreciated. All of a sudden you're a civilian, and [asking,] 'Where's my mission, my purpose?' It's a big transition that sometimes they never surmount," said Puglia, also a Valley Sun columnist.

"When I do PTSD counseling, I listen empathetically and relate," said Puglia. "But what do you say to a young Marine whose squad leader says, 'It's your birthday, let me go in first,' and then he goes in and gets his head blown off?"

Kritzman, a platoon sergeant in World War II who was later awarded two Purple Hearts in Korea, knows all too well the sudden violence of war.

Shortly after his recovery from a battlefield bullet wound to his shoulder, another bullet shattered Kritzman's right femur and severed a sciatic nerve on May 10, 1951.

The harrowing week of emergency care that followed during Kritzman's return to the U.S. for an 18-month hospice recovery is preserved on film in the 1952 Academy Award-nominated documentary short, "One Who Came Home," which was produced by the group Disabled American Veterans.

Though Kritzman later retired from the Los Angeles Police Department and worked as an archaeologist after attending USC through the G.I. Bill, he's dealt with the effects of his injury for 60 years now — a struggle he understands is just beginning for those wounded in the Middle East.

"People pay attention when they call you up to fight, but as soon as the war's over, it's forgotten. I feel for the veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. A bunch are homeless or without a job, and a lot of these guys are going to have post-traumatic stress," said Kritzman.

And although he hadn't made any Veterans Day plans, Kritzman said he may attend today's observance and flyover in Pasadena.

"Somebody needs to say 'thank you,'" he said.

Veterans and military families in need of Veterans Administration benefit, housing, employment or education assistance are urged to call the California Department of Veterans Affairs Operation Welcome Home at (800) 952-5626 or visit veterans.ca.gov.

Call (626) 795-8141 or visit vva446.org to contact the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 446 in Pasadena.

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