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Returned local vets honored, donate to Toys for Tots

BY KRISTEN EAST | DECEMBER 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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Sgt. 1st Class Wayne Loveland spent last Christmas in Afghanistan. Now home, Loveland, a member of the Army National Guard, will be able to spend the holidays with his family.

"Last Christmas was a little tough spending it away from my family," he said. "I'm going to try to make up for it this year."

He won't be the only local veteran home for the holidays this year.

Loveland is one of six AFSCME Local 2985 members who returned home in July from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The members were honored at the Iowa Medical & Classification Center in Oakdale on Monday morning for their service and for donating more than $1,000 worth of toys to Toys for Tots this holiday season.

 

The six veterans were also part of the largest deployment Iowa has ever seen, said Marty Hathaway, the president of AFSCME Local 2985. According to NBC, roughly 3,000 Iowa Army National Guard soldiers were deployed in August 2010 for one year, making it the largest deployment of the Iowa Guard since World War II.

Sgt. Justin Gilbert, who served in Afghanistan with the Army National Guard, said it was "an honor" to be in the group.

"We got to do a lot of great things; we got to help a lot of people," he said. "It was a fairly good time."

The Afghanistan and Iraq wars started in 2001 and 2003, and all combat troops are expected to return from Iraq by the end of the year, according to an announcement by President Obama in October.

Many University of Iowa students who were deployed last August have also returned home.

"We've got a large group of students who came back with that group," said John Mikelson, the UI Veterans Center coordinator. "They served Iowa proudly, and they've come back to take their rightful place in society. They did what their country needed them to do."

With the possibility of the Department of Veteran Affairs being hit by other funding cuts, Mikelson said, it's "absolutely critical" for the community to support returning veterans.

"We spend months training a civilian to be a warrior; they train all the time in preparation for war," Mikelson said. "On the backside, we're sending them home, and they spend a few days at a demobilization site before they're sent back to society."

Mikelson said the government needs to think very carefully about cuts made to military spending and veteran funding.

"We always recognize the need, but once the war is over, we cut back and we move the services, and we just need to be more careful in how we do that," he said.

This fall, 468 students are using government funds to attend the UI using some type of Veteran Affairs or GI Bill, Mikelson said. Additionally, roughly 350 UI faculty and staff identify as veterans.

Now home, the soldiers said they continue to do what they can to support their community.

Loveland said donating money to Toys for Tots was more important for the group than receiving recognition upon returning home.

"We all kind of agreed that our needs were already met," Loveland said. "We had a place to come back to. We're a lot more fortunate than a lot of people. We figured we could donate that [money] instead."


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