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CNN Special: "Veterans In Focus"

Aired November 11, 2013 - 14:30   ET


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For generations, the great war planes of the world have flown home when their battles are done, bringing grateful veterans eager to return to their civilian lives. Now, many of those planes are gathered here at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, making it a perfect place for this year's "Veterans in Focus."

Welcome. I'm Tom Foreman, and our theme is transition. The sometimes challenging transition the troops can face when they leave the service. There are more than 20 million veterans in this country, old and young, men and women, people who have moved on from their time in uniform.

So it is fitting that our next story is about moving, about a Marine working for a moving company until he had an idea to start a business of his own employing other veterans, and well, photojournalist, Bob Bikel, is here with the movers.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're a company full of veterans and veterans take pride in what they do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You wake up early in the morning and try to get there as early as possible depending on New York traffic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We get our mission listing, what we have to do for the day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Going to Williamsburg.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Try to keep up with the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What time does the job start? Between 1 and 3, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kind of like a military operation order.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you show up a bunch of veterans, they pretty much know what they're getting.

GUY LUERSEN, U.S. ARMY: The discipline instilled in you in the military, everybody takes it to work with them wherever they go.

JOE PICHARDO, U.S. ARMY: For a lot of veterans coming back to the city, it's so hard to get established and get your feet back on the ground. It took me four months to find a place to live. A lot of people, they're looking for a year of like work. So when you get out of the service, obviously, you're not getting a paycheck anymore.

Even though you might have $30,000 saved in a bank account, that doesn't matter. You have to have steady work. It takes a lot to sacrifice your time and energy to serve for your government, to protect the people of this land and you know, when you're here in the city, jobs are scarce.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Since you were in the service, there is no such thing as I'm going to stop and quit because I'm tired.

LUERSEN: We don't have bad traits other companies have. Everyone here always has their head on straight when they come to work.

RUDY FAUSLIN, U.S. MARINE CORPS: What more can you ask for? You work and now you're getting paid and you are hanging out with your friends, pretty much.

DERRELL LEE, U.S. ARMY: It's good work. What we do here. I'm going to go with this company, ride with it until the wheels fall or until we explode and I don't have to be on the truck examine.

PICHARDO: Almost 99 percent of our clients are always happy with us. We have been lucky, so lucky that we found a group of men that love what they do and they respect their clients. And the clients just love us.


FOREMAN: Moving up is, of course, the goal for many veterans when they leave the service although, for those with serious wounds, that can be a real challenge. Fortunately, out west at the Southern California soaring academy, there are folks who all the time are taking vets to new heights. Photojournalist, Gabe Ramirez, takes us there.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My experience in Afghanistan, it's kind of a favorite question of people. You know, sometimes I ask, do you really want to know? Because sometimes it's not -- it's not good stuff that goes on out there. After my first deployment, I had a couple of my close buddies that they died in deployment.

There's nothing you can do, and you feel really guilty, so I just held it in. You know, usually, I like to stay here by myself. That's why the doctor said, hey, go out and have fun, Bond with other guys who have gone through the same things and you know, basically help us to just get back to normal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our program is the wounded service members soaring or gliding program. Once a month, we take them up soaring. Basically, put them in a glider and take them up flying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Being up there, you really -- I mean, honestly get to see god's landscape, like he painted it so beautiful up there. You appreciate everything. We should never take life for granted. I had no fear up there. All love, nothing to be scared of at all. No fear. To be honest, I haven't had my heart pumping that fast in a while. It was cool. We had a Vietnam fighter pilot. He went super aggressive.

JOHN SHMOLDAS, COLONEL, U.S. AIR FORCE (RETIRED): I flew jets all my life, F-4s and F-5s. We had our own combat experiences and we see these fine young men and gals coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, we have a passion for flying these planes and want to share it with these guys and get their adrenaline going and show them maybe they wouldn't have had an opportunity to do otherwise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's different. It's just it like kind of a peace. You feel free.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was sweet, man. It was sweet. Feel like crying almost. Let me stop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't be standing here talking to you about it right now if you were to hit me up four, five months ago. I would have been tears and heartbroken, but the sunshine is out and I'm happy to be alive again and be just living.


FOREMAN: Coming up, from combat to the culinary arts.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's what I want to do.


FOREMAN: Turning soldiers into chefs.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Throw it up, brother.


FOREMAN: And the height of success. Veterans learning how to climb back into the lives they left when "Veterans In Focus" continues.


FOREMAN: New York's Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park may seem very far, far away from a place like this, but there was actually a direct link. The institute was started after World War II to turn G.I.s into chefs. That task has never ended. Indeed the institute says in the past few years, the number of vets seeking real-world skills there has more than tripled. So photojournalist, Jeremy Harlin, takes us to see what's cooking.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're our money makers. These hands are what I have going for me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Culinary arts, I think, is sort of a natural fit for someone that's good with their hands, likes to be very active, likes to be very involved and engaged.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Before I came to the Culinary Institute of America, I literally knew nothing about the culinary field. I did two tours to Fallujah, Iraq. I was a machine gunner in the second Marines. This is my slicing knife, my chef knife.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As these people return and decide what to do, culinary arts seems to be something they have gravitated towards.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The United States Marine Corps is in ways similar to the culinary field.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Make sure the potatoes are 100 percent covered with water.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the Marine Corps, I had a company of first sergeants. A platoon staff sergeant, I was a squad leader.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Citric acid, tip of the spoon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You had your chef, your sous chef, then your line cooks, your prep cooks. You got that hierarchy. There's a lot of discipline, a lot of focus, just like the Marine Corps.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Veterans bring a lot to the kitchen. They tend to be very highly focused, very goal-oriented, very driven for success. They serve often as role models for our younger students as to what professionalism looks like.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We can be focused and we can be disciplined and we carry that. We know when it comes time to work, we're in there. We're ready to work.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is such an honor and a privilege to be able to help share with these people and give them the power, the knowledge, the courage to go on and pursue the next phases of their life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It has nothing to do with guns, has nothing to do with being a Marine Corps, but it's what I want to do. It's what I made happen. So if you're a veteran, go after what you want.


FOREMAN: Part of the key to a successful transition for any veteran is a sense of confidence. The knowledge that they can succeed once again at whatever they take on in civilian life. That's not always easy when some suffer from wounds both inside and out. Photojournalist Bob Crowley met up with a group in the northeast that helps veterans get back to life as they once knew it and teaches them the ropes.


TIM O'NEILL, EXECETIVE DIRECTOR, PARADOX SPORTS: This is a legendary, historic climbing area. The reason we're all here is because a part of us likes risk. When you go climbing, it takes you out of what would be your conventional element and forces you to come to terms with fear. It's kind of like being in the military. You always have to be ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nick first came into our programming about a year ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You mind if I have this little piece right here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What it does is takes us vets and then they pair us with regular civilian disabled individuals.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I prefer you not go aggressively.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have been doing for years what I have been used to for the first two or three years since I have been back from Afghanistan. Climbing is just my way of dealing with transition. We deal with life and death risks. Kind of the closest thing I have to being in the military now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was fortunate enough to earn a bronze star for saving the life of a French soldier, but I was injured as well. I suffered a traumatic brain injury. I came home, couldn't spell my own name, couldn't walk without a cane, and I could barely speak.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You come home and everybody thanks you for your service, but they really don't understand what you went through. It's hard to convey that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This gets the heart pumping. This is good practice for those vertical walls that come in life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you're on a rock wall and you come up to a problem, and you just don't know if you can get through it, you're sweating, your heart is beating, you just want to give up, but then when you keep trying and you end up getting to the top, it's the best feeling in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This gets hard at the top.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Feels good, feels good. It lets you know you can feel again, that you're not numb.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nice work. Good job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Throw it up, brother.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's something inside you that's still alive.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were going to do our job. Come hell or high water.


FOREMAN: When we return, the historic flight, the haunting memories, and the never-ending struggle to keep hallowed ground. "Veterans In Focus" will be right back.


FOREMAN: In many ways, veterans help the rest of us with the transition to, the transition from war to peace by explaining firsthand some of the difficult and complicated decisions that must be made in the heat of battle. One such decision swirls around this plane. The Enola Gay, and Photojournalist William Walker caught up with one of the veterans who flew an important mission.


THEODORE "DUTCH" VAN KIRK, ENOLA GAY NAVIGATOR: This is the Enola gay and that's the way it looked sitting on the ramp over there. That photograph there was taken just before we took off. That's me, right there. We were like brothers and we had complete faith in each other.

DR. JEREMY KINNEY, CURATOR, SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM: They are professional bomber crew. That is their mission. That is their way of life and they perform it very well and that's part of this great story of our veterans.

VAN KIRK: We were going to do our job come hell or high water.

KINNEY: He would be right behind Paul, the pilot, in this area where the little window is. You had a desk where he could look out the window, all his slide rolls and plying material. We get a reaction from the Enola Gay in the sense that you may have a veteran that says, this ended the war, this is beautiful silver airplane. People get really excited about airplane said and how they look, but then they realize, this is Enola Gay. And this is the airplane that in August 1945 destroyed a city.

VAN KIRK: I really feel we did the right thing. Nobody wanted to invade Japan, but that was the alternative to us dropping the bomb. That's how I justified it. I am not a preservationist. They can take all the old airplanes and put them in a junk heap as far as I'm concerned. But the Enola Gay has something special. We flew a mission in it. We lived through it. I have great reverence for that airplane and it brought me home.


FOREMAN: Veterans have a long history of helping each other out. Not just during the transition back to civilian life, but sometimes for their entire lives and even beyond. Photojournalist Effie Nidam found such a story in the northeast where an Air Force veteran tends to the land and troops who marched upon it long ago. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It just shouldn't be this way. These graves should be cleared and paid the respect that they deserve. We're at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, founded in 1855 and remained in operation until 2011, at which time it was abandoned. As time goes by, the cemetery ran out of grounds. Funding gets cut.

And next thing you know, they can't afford to maintain the cemetery. The government isn't responsible for Mt. Moriah due to the fact they don't own the grounds. They're not responsible for maintaining cemeteries in which veterans are interred. It's just an absolute crime that the grounds are in the shape that they are.

These guys are heroes. They need to be treated as such. Want to help preserve American history. We've got soldiers in here who fought in the revolution, Spanish American war, the war of 1812, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam. I'm veteran of the United States Air Force. I was basically a heavy equipment operator out of a flight line, loading and unloading cargo and supporting "Desert Storm."

These are brothers that during the civil war both earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions in battle. Being a veteran, understanding the sacrifice that a lot of men and women made for our country, it's really a humbling experience to make things better around the graves. They need to be honored. Not hidden in six to eight-feet tall of weeds and brush. If I'm going to spend the next 20, 30 years of my life getting it back to what it was, and when we are able to get it back there, I would love to be buried out here.


FOREMAN: We will return in a moment with many happy returns. Coming home to "Veterans In Focus."


FOREMAN: For those who will eventually become veterans, there may be nothing sweeter than those moments when they are reunited with families after months of being deployed. It is after all the first hint they will have of what the transition will be like back to civilian life. So Photojournalist Chris Turner leaves us with the return of the Tortuga in Virginia after months at sea.








UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you guys doing?


FOREMAN: And with that, on behalf of all the fine photojournalists at CNN, I'm Tom Foreman. Thank you for watching. Thanks to the Steven F. Udvar Hassi Center for hosting us, and thanks to all the veterans who have served the United States of America. We hope you have a wonderful Veterans Day.