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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

CNN SPECIAL "VETERANS IN FOCUS"

Aired November 11, 2012 - 14:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Ever since World War II, America has set aside one day each year to honor all who have served in the military. They are defenders one and all of a grateful nation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: Welcome to VETERANS IN FOCUS. I'm Tom Foreman. We're here in Arlington National Cemetery where so many veterans have found their place of final rest, but there are more than 22 million veterans living in America today.

And each year around Veterans Day we send the fine photojournalists of CNN to capture some of their stories of dedication, heroism and the lasting impact they've had on the lives of others.

Our first story is just such a tale. Photojournalist Jeremy Moorhead has just that story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, buddy, come here. Get your gear on. We have to get your helmet on, big guy. We've got a big game today? Pop pop's first game that he gets to watch.

BOB BUNTING, GRANDFATHER/VETERAN: It's a wonderful feeling to get to watch Connor across the field. I'm sure his dad is very proud of him.

NICKI BUNTING, WIFE: I'm loving watching Connor do the face-off. Lacrosse is something Bubba and I just always dreamed of watching our kids play. He really analyzes the game and he plays it well, which is just like his dad.

Bubba always dreamed of being a dad. That's kind of all he ever wanted to be. When I look at that picture, well, I see a good cadet. He was gone for about ten months and was training the Afghani national police.

He came home for about two and a half weeks. That was his R and R period. It was awesome. Connor had changed so much, so it was really cool to see Bubba's reaction to all the new things that Connor could do. He really, really, really loved his friends and family. He would do anything for them. Even if that meant, you know, pay the ultimate sacrifice. Once he was back, he was there for about four days. That's when he was killed by an IUD. Here, Cooper. Yes, kitty cat doesn't want to come inside. Cooper, my little one, he's my miracle baby. Where is daddy? Daddy is in heaven.

We wanted so badly to have another baby. Are you going to wear daddy's hat? Yes. Four days after I found out he was killed is when I found I was pregnant. Let's see, does it fit, a little big.

I try to keep his memory alive with everything I do, really. Look how big you guys are smiling. I talk about him all the time. This is his belt. We have a room that's kind of dedicated to him.

Do you see that thing hanging up on the wall? That's his Saber. He told me before he was deployed that if anything ever happened to him that he would be OK because he had everything that he ever wanted in life because he had Connor.

BOB BUNTING: Keep working hard.

NICKI BUNTING: Connor, that was awesome, buddy. I know Bubba is watching him. I'm going to raise his kids the way I promised him I would.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: Ever since World War I, the Purple Heart has been awarded to troops who were wounded or killed in combat. It's one of the most respected and honored of all military medals and its origin in fact dates all the way back to General George Washington.

Captain Zachariah Fyke received one for injuries he sustained in Afghanistan, but it's what he has done to carry the medals of others that is the real story brought to us by photojournalist, Bob Crowley.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ralph sacrificed more than just his service to our country, he sacrificed his blood.

BARBARA MACNEVIN, DAUGHTER OF PURPLE HEART RECIPIENT: My dad, Ralph W. Vamp, he was a veteran of the First World War, the big war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For that sacrifice, he was awarded the world's first medal, the Purple Heart.

BARBARA MACNEVIN: He lost his right leg fighting in France, and he received a Purple Heart for that. We had it for many years in my home where I grew up.

ROBERT MACNEVIN, GRANDSON OF PURPLE HEART RECIPIENT: Unbeknownst to us, it was lost in some manner in one of his moves later in life.

CAPT. ZACHARIAN FIKE, U.S. ARMY: I found Private Ralph's medal on Craigslist. These are all the Purple Hearts I'm currently working. Some I've located to families, some I haven't. I do this on my own time. I don't consider it a hobby. It's more a calling or an honor. More often than not, they put it in a shoebox and they lose it. I myself have a Purple Heart. It hangs in my mother's home on her wall.

I hope that someday if mine were lost, somebody would do that for me or my family. It is truly an honor to bring this Purple Heart home to his family. I am humbled by his sacrifice. It is a great honor to bring home his Purple Heart. Thank you very much.

BARBARA MACNEVIN: The medal means a lot to me especially, and to our family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's it. That's the Purple Heart.

BARBARA MACNEVIN: I remember seeing it and my mother kept it in a certain spot in the dining room.

FIKE: Seeing how appreciative they were was just a tremendous feeling. I'm glad it's home where it belongs, and I'll move on to the next medal.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: When we return, veterans on the job fighting fires with fires, and the art of war. VETERANS IN FOCUS continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: You might think veterans who survive horrific injuries would quickly want to put their service behind them, but that's not always the case.

Indeed, some go on to make their greatest contributions in service to their country. Consider the story of Colonel Gregory Gadson as brought to us by photojournalist Bill McKnight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLONEL GREGORY D. GADSON, GARRISON COMMANDER, FORT BELVOIR, VA: May 7 of 2007, my vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, Iraq. I remember the explosion very clearly. It's something I'll never forget, and ultimately over the next two weeks, I would lose my legs above the knee.

Well, when I came home, of course, wounded, that was a new experience for me. I had never come home without my troops. I really felt alone. I did say absolutely enough is enough. Not that I got to a point where I felt like I was going to take my life or anything like that.

But I just didn't want to be a burden to anyone, and I just wanted to kind of crawl in my hole and kind of collapse on myself. I'm very grateful, and thank God that I didn't do that. For me when I tried to quit, when I tried to crawl into that shell, it was very uncomfortable because that wasn't who I was. I'm the garrison commander of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. We support a base of about 15,000. All of our services appreciate the value that someone has regardless of what they don't have any more. This event that happened to me doesn't define me, and it's not something I dwell on.

I wouldn't characterize myself as a hero. I mean, ultimately, those that really pay in full measure are heroes. I always say if you know a veteran out there, just tell them thank you, and their family. We never get tired of hearing it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: Unemployment remains a serious issue among veterans, especially with so many returning from overseas in recent years. Fortunately, there are people out there who are dedicating themselves to making sure veterans are not forgotten when jobs are on the line. Photojournalist John Torigoe has that story from Southern California.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SGT. FRANKIE VERNER, U.S. MARINE CORPS (RETIRED): I am currently in the firefighting training with the California Conservation Corps. Hold it and just pull. There is an awful lot of training, so it's really good that they're doing this especially for veterans because it can be hard sometimes to find good jobs.

We played with the chain saw, just kind of get associated, a little more familiar with it. Then we practiced laying hose from an engine, which we hadn't done yet, with actual water.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's what influences the land fires, right?

VERNER: Since it's mostly veterans, it's really easy for a lot of us to just click and work together, so the teamwork thing fell into place very well. I was an aviation, hydraulics and air frame mechanic. I was at camp Pendleton and we deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. I know it was a really bloody summer while we were there. I saw a lot of bodies coming back.

PETTY OFFICER JAZMYNE SIMS, U.S. NAVY (RETIRED): I was in the Navy, U.S. Navy for four years. My job title was quarter master. We helped out with amphibious operations. We had a lot of Marines on our boats.

I was so focused on the Navy at one point in time, I never imagined myself being a firefighter. I never imagined myself going through the training. It's been challenging for me, but the challenge has been more than welcome.

VERNER: I hope I get picked up by some fire department, or I'm also hoping for some police work, just getting experience and hoping for a job.

SIMS: It means a lot because I have a lot of veterans in my family. When we have Veterans Day, I paved the way for people that are going to come behind me to do their time and service. To come home and to celebrate a Veterans Day or, you know, to have people acknowledge the fact that, you know, I did something like this, it touches my heart, it really does.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: In just a moment, war stories with a twist. VETERANS IN FOCUS will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: Many veterans struggle to deal with the experiences they had in combat and feel as though those experiences have changed their lives in very profound ways. One example is Marine Sergeant Christian Ellis.

He suffered a broken back during an ambush in Iraq, and in many ways, he felt for a long time maybe his spirit was broken, too until he converted his story into the most remarkable thing, an opera. Photojournalist Gabe Ramirez has his story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SGT. CHRISTIAN ELLIS, U.S. MARINE CORPS (RETIRED): I identified so much with being a combat Marine. I didn't think anything outside the world would matter. Then people started noticing other talents of mine. I met Charlie Enberg. He issued a challenge.

I want you to create a story that can possibly be turned into a musical. I had this idea of the story being this opera. All actors of this opera come from experiences of my own life. I joined the Marine Corps because I was one of those young men who didn't have any goals in life.

So I thought I would be this kick-ass guy with all these cool machine guns in both hands, and at that time what I perceived to be war is what I took off the movie. That was before I got into the combat zone, but when we got there, that's when everything changed.

In 2004, we were deployed to Fallujah. I remember what we went through was quite significant. It was intense. You know, things got heavy. We prayed we would make it out. The pain has been so intense. The guilt has been so extraordinary.

It's been rough. You know, I've dealt with suicide many times. It's going to be in your face and not realize this is what war was like. This is what veterans go through. This is what veterans experience on a day-to-day basis.

So this whole process from the beginning has helped me accept and calm a lot of the turmoil in my head. Coming home is not easy at all. Coming home for any combat veteran is probably the most difficult thing they will ever have to do. I still struggle. I struggle hard, but the best part is I do see that light.

(END VIDEOTAPE) FOREMAN: Another veteran also turned to the arts to make sense of his service while I service. While in a bunker in Iraq, he and another soldier dreamed up a story of a soldier and a dancer and a distant war. Now it's no longer a dream but a real life ballet. That story comes from journalist Bob Beikel.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROMAN BACA, FOUNDER, EXIT 12 DANCE COMPANY: I'm Roman Baca. I'm a U.S. Marine Iraq war veteran. I'm also the artistic director of Exit 12 Dance Company. I started dancing in a small studio and that led to transitioning to larger studios. As a typical American, I took a lot of things for granted.

I wanted to see if I could do something totally different than being an artist. I had something to prove to myself and I also wanted to serve my country. So I joined the United States Marine Corps. 2005 we were called to deploy to Fallujah, Iraq. We got back in '06.

Six months after, my girlfriend sat me down and she said, you're not OK. You're not the same person that I knew before the war. If you could really do anything in the world, what would you do? And I had this interesting choreography. I would start a dance company.

It wasn't a primary goal to talk about the military, but it just wasn't me not to put that part of myself into that work. And then she goes, and you pull back. The whole tie-in is extremely important, and it's allowed us to do community service outreach to veterans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Imagine all the sadness and the grief of the hero who isn't true.

BACA: Warrior Writers is a group of military veterans that write about their experiences. We brought together a couple of veterans. They were very skeptical in the beginning, as was I. But in the end, they were so emphatic about giving of their stuff and seeing how it came together in movement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your life, after death, and message lives on.

BACA: I get up every morning and I, again, like when I was in the Marine Corps, know that I'm making a difference in somebody's life. Nice job, yes. I didn't go to Iraq with 60 Marines that just wanted to go down and level a city. I went with 60 Marines that wanted to improve a city. So why would it stop overseas?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: When we return, many happy returns, the long road home that so many veterans have traveled.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: For many military families, there's just nothing sweeter than the end of a long deployment when months of uncertainty and fear disappear in a sudden rush of hugs and kisses. That's what photojournalist Dave Jenkins found when some troops in Washington, D.C. came home after almost a year in Afghanistan.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm happy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How you doing? Welcome home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Being in America again is like everything you always dreamed of.

SPC. ARTLEVIA ERVIN, 273 MILITARY POLICE CO.: A bunch of mountains, a bunch of rocks. I'm happy to be back and see grass.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome back, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nice to see you, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Likewise.

SGT. DARRELL COUSAR, 273 MILITARY POLICE CO.: I carry that with me every day. This just reminded me of what I got back at home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Welcome back!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Daddy loves you.

SGT. YVETTE JONES, 273 MILITARY POLICE CO.: I love it. It feels good to know that people missed you as much as you missed them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: And with that, we would like to extend our sincere thanks to all veterans and their families. Thanks for your service to the country. On behalf of all of the fine photojournalists at CNN, I'm Tom Foreman. Thank you for watching.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)