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Military veterans get a helping hand

Army veteran Eric Reilly of Shirley eats a

Army veteran Eric Reilly of Shirley eats a Thanksgiving dinner provided by volunteers. (Nov. 21, 2011) Credit: Steve Pfost

One by one, they filed into the Marine Corps facility in Garden City, each bearing the burden of his military service, each hoping for a bit of relief.

One man, Eric Reilly, 23, of Shirley, squirmed with anxiety. He said he still struggles with memories of the death of a fellow soldier in the Humvee they had been riding in Iraq on New Year's Eve 2008. He vows never to forget his friend, whose name he wears on his wrist.

"I still never take his bracelet off," Reilly said.

Another man, Robert Nelson, 64, of Newark, said he has wrestled with drug abuse issues since his days on Vietnam's "Hamburger Hill" 42 years ago.

Still another, Gregory Whitehead, 63, of Hempstead, survived a hand grenade explosion in Vietnam that eventually cost him his eyesight, and is now trying to outrun poverty.

They and more than 140 others came to a "stand down" services fair Monday organized by the Nassau County Veterans Agency and the United Veterans Organization of Nassau County.

The fair brought together some two dozen government and nonprofit provider agencies, including the Salvation Army, the New York Department of Labor, the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island and the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Because the transition from military to civilian life can be overwhelming for individuals who have been traumatized by combat or who lack job skills, veterans sometimes struggle with homelessness or substance abuse, according to social workers.

"If you don't have a strong support structure of family or friends, reintegrating into civilian life can be very challenging," said Andrew Roberts, director of military and veterans services at the Rosen Family Wellness Center, part of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, which counsels returning veterans.

Visitors to the fair were assisted by 200 volunteers -- many of them wearing the emblems of groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars -- who distributed donated clothing and toiletries, turkeys for Thanksgiving and other groceries.

As he left with a bag of clothing and a frozen turkey, Whitehead, tapping his way with a cane, said he lives on a fixed income of $2,773 per month in veterans benefits and an insurance annuity.

"I'm so broke, I don't even have a penny," Whitehead said. "I shouldn't have to do this."

Nelson came from an inpatient drug treatment program at a Veterans Affairs facility in St. Albans, Queens, where he said he had checked in several weeks ago.

He survived the May 1969 assault on Ap Bia Mountain in Vietnam -- "Hamburger Hill" -- where scores of American troops perished during a 10-day battle.

"It either made you or broke you," Nelson said. He said two cousins and three high school classmates perished in the war. "There was nothing but death."

Reilly was among only a handful of recent veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who came to the fair. He is one of the 30.4 percent of veterans under 25 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says is unemployed, and said the blanket, boxer shorts and other items he left with will help.

Reilly is also a patient at St. Albans, where he said he is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he is determined to repair his life.

"I'm getting myself together," he said.

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