Justin Constantine didn’t have it easy when he came home.
The now-retired Marine lieutenant colonel volunteered to go to Iraq after the 9-11 attacks, ready to help rebuild that part of the world.
But one October day in 2006, while on a combat patrol, Constantine was shot in the head by a sniper.
The bullet — which some initially thought had killed him — destroyed his jaw and much of his face, causing catastrophic damage.
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Multiple surgeries and much medical treatment followed.
Today, the Purple Heart recipient is a businessman, an author, an inspirational speaker.
His transition to civilian life was tough, he said.
“I hope you realize what a complicated transition it can be,” he said Wednesday during a summit at the George W. Bush Institute that focused on helping veterans. “Today’s veterans don’t need a handout — but a hand up.
“Some of us are facing very tough obstacles right now, but we all want to be productive members of our society.”
Bush called on Americans to do what they can to help veterans such as Constantine, particularly the 2.5 million post-9-11 veterans.
“They are the 1 percent of Americans that kept the 99 percent safe,” he said at the Empowering Our Nation’s Warriors summit. “We owe them and their families a deep debt of gratitude.
“What most veterans want is to have their service understood and appreciated for what it is — a formative experience in their lives and a source of skills and values that prepare them to succeed in civilian life,” he said.
“Our veterans have defended the American people. Now they want to pursue the American dream.”
The institute, part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, has begun an initiative to work with leaders in business, education, the nonprofit world and more to develop resources for veterans and their families.
Key issues include the civilian-military divide, employment and stigmas related to post-traumatic stress, which Bush said is not a disorder but a treatable condition.
“The goal of the Military Service Initiative is to empower veterans to make a smooth and successful transition to civilian life,” he said. “We will do that by spreading information to reduce the civilian-military divide, by breaking down barriers and opening up new opportunities for employment, and by helping service organizations deliver better results for our veterans.”
Jill Biden, a military mother and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, joined Bush at the event.
“I am always inspired by the strength and resilience of our military families,” said Biden, who has worked with first lady Michelle Obama to create Joining Forces, an effort to motivate the country to support service members.
“Military families have done so much for our country. That’s what this is all about: Americans stepping up to do their part.”
‘The smart thing to do’
Almost eight months after Bush took office, terrorists hijacked airliners on Sept. 11 and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
In response, Bush declared a “war on terror” that came to include military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that continue today.
More than 2 million American service members have deployed in those years, according to the Defense Department.
Bush said one of the most comprehensive studies ever on post-9-11 veterans will be released this year.
He offered a peek at a few of the statistics:
• Of the 2.5 million post-9-11 veterans, more than 2 million have served in Afghanistan or Iraq.
• 92 percent said they would recommend military service to someone considering signing up.
• 84 percent said the public has little awareness of the challenges faced by service members and their families.
Organizers of Wednesday’s summit said they hope to boost public awareness of veterans’ needs and the challenges they face.
“We are asking how best we can serve our veterans,” said Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
A key part of helping, Bush said, is to encourage companies to hire veterans.
“Hiring veterans is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do,” Bush said. “As someone who has employed a lot of people in my career, I’ve learned that you can always teach skills.
“What matters most in an employee are qualities like character and values, work ethic and responsibility. That’s what veterans bring.”
‘Not a disorder’
The Bush institute is housed at the presidential center, a $250 million three-story building that has a library and a museum and is on the grounds of Southern Methodist University.
Bush has long focused on veterans, particularly the wounded, hosting bike rides and an annual golf tournament for wounded warriors.
“The real problem with post-traumatic stress is not the condition itself. The problem is the stigma surrounding the condition,” he said. “Partly because it is mislabeled as a ‘disorder’ and partly because many people aren’t aware of treatment options, some veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress are reluctant to seek help.
“As most doctors today will tell you, post-traumatic stress is not a disorder,” Bush said. “Post-traumatic stress, or PTS, is an injury that can result from the experience of war. And like other injuries, PTS is treatable.”
Constantine praised Bush as a unwavering supporter of the troops while he was in office — and since he left.
And he said finding ways to help veterans is essential.
“Today’s issues need to be discussed,” he said.