They risk their lives and endure brutally violent conditions on tours of duty that average almost a year. What sustains them through it all is the dream of coming home. But what's next? When returning troops reach U.S. soil, do they get the help they need?
"It should be the No. 1 priority of this country to recognize their efforts and, when they return, to ensure that the benefits are available to them," says Peter Gaytan with the American Legion.
Too often, though, resources and programs are not available, according to many veterans organizations.
- Health care: More than 10,000 U.S. troops have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, overwhelming the veterans health care system in some states — where injured veterans wait months to get help.
- Education: The GI bill gives veterans money for college. But vets groups say the funding doesn't match what school really costs.
- Death benefit: The families of the nearly 1,500 U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan receive only about $12,000.
"Twelve-thousand dollars is a paltry and miserly amount," says Sen. George Allen, R-Va.
Now some members of Congress want to increase the benefit to $100,000.
The problem in all these issues, according to veterans groups, is too little money. In a time of war, they say funding for veterans should be going up. But veterans groups are worried that when President Bush issues his budget proposal next month, veterans programs will be frozen or maybe even cut.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a big advocate for veterans, learned how hard it is to increase funding. He was chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, but not anymore.
"It's our contention that in the eyes of the leadership he did too good a job," says Dennis Cullinan of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "He was clearly pushed out. It's unprecedented."
The president's choice to be the new secretary of veterans affairs was asked Monday if veterans will get the assistance they need.
"My commitment in taking on this job, if I am given the privilege, is to the veterans and their needs, because I feel it, and they deserve it," Jim Nicholson told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
But Nicholson stressed that funds are finite and left open the possibility of cuts in programs as the troops come home.