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At the White House tonight, President Obama hosts a thank you dinner for a few dozen Iraq War veterans. They represent more than 1 million uniformed men and women who served during the nine-year conflict. The dinner is meant to be a show of gratitude.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports that some who served are also looking for more practical assistance as they cope with the war's lingering effects.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Staff Sergeant Shawon Tucker was working at an Army Health Center in southern Virginia not long ago when she got a call from her military boss.
STAFF SERGEANT SHAWON TUCKER: At first, I thought I was in trouble because sergeant major doesn't call you often unless, you know, you're in trouble or, you know, he needs you to do something.
HORSLEY: What the sergeant major needed Tucker do in this case was put on her best uniform and report to the White House to receive the thanks of her commander in chief. Tucker is one of 78 service members invited to tonight's dinner from every branch of the military and every state. The Alabama native says it's a big responsibility.
TUCKER: It means a great deal. It signifies the end of a long operation. It's just a wonderful feeling.
HORSLEY: Lieutenant Paul Gonzales of the Army Reserve served in Anbar Province during a particularly dangerous period of the war. He says it was hard on his wife, Joey. She is his date for tonight's White House dinner.
LIEUTENANT PAUL GONZALES: For the spouses to hold down the home front, that's a whole other ballgame. And so the support of the spouses is equally, if not more important, than what the soldiers are doing.
HORSLEY: Organizing this dinner is a delicate task. The war's end was anticlimactic. Many who served came home years ago, and others may still be deployed to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Jason Hansman of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association adds the need to support those who served will continue long after tonight's dessert plates have been cleared.
JASON HANSMAN: While the combat operations are over, vets are still fighting. I mean, they're still fighting unemployment, mental health, and, you know, they're fighting to get their education.
HORSLEY: Unemployment among war veterans has come down in recent months, but it's still higher than the national average. Hansman knows how hard it can be to adjust to civilian employment.
HANSMAN: I went through four months of unemployment when I got out of the military. And a lot of it was, yeah, being able to describe something very technical like being a civil affairs sergeant to someone that doesn't really care about that as much as they care about what you can do for their profit margin.
HORSLEY: Women leaving the service have an especially hard time finding work. Late last year, Congress passed a bill offering tax credits to employers who hire veterans, along with help for new veterans in crafting resumes and acing job interviews.
First Lady Michelle Obama has won voluntary commitments from employers to hire more than 150,000 veterans over the next two years. The White House is also trying to encourage more local governments to hire veterans as police officers and firefighters.
Lieutenant Gonzales, who works as a firefighter in Wichita, Kansas, says he's also grateful for the small gestures of thanks - the handshakes and smiles he receives - whenever he travels in uniform.
GONZALES: When I came home from Iraq, my uniform wasn't in its best shape.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GONZALES: It was a little beat up, a little torn. And when I came off the plane, I was in Atlanta, and several people offered to carry my bags for me or to, you know, buy me this or buy me that. I said, you know what? I can do it, but I really appreciate, you know, your help. Such a small percentage of us have gone overseas. It's good that the people are supportive.
HORSLEY: The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association wants to give more Americans a chance to show that support. It's petitioning cities across the country to organize welcome home parades that would also serve as gateways to connect veterans with needed services. Scott Horsley, NPR news, Washington.
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