Major Stephen Flanagan was visibly nervous as he began his and neighbors in his hometown.
But when began talking about the difficulties faced by veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, as they sought to make the adjustment back to civilian life, any jitters disappeared and the decorated war hero spoke with the conviction and passion of a leader committed to doing everything in his power to make sure that a few years of honorable service don't turn into a lifetime of suffering.
"33,000 servicemen have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan physically wounded," said Flanagan. "Countless more have returned home with psychological issues. Across the nation, the rates of depression, suicide and homelessness among veterans is sky-high."
Flanagan told the hundreds in attendance that the issue hits close to home for him. He said two men in his unit committed suicide during his last tour of duty. He also shared his own battles with depression and the difficulty he had adjusting to civilian life after 10 years of active duty.
"I returned home to a failed relationship and no friends out in Colorado, where I was living," he said.
As a Special Forces Green Beret Flanagan proved he could handle anything inthe field of combat. Through three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, his commendations included the Combat Infantryman Badge, five Army Commendation Medals and two Bronze Stars. In many ways, re-adjusting to life at home proved to be more of a challenge.
Flanagan admits he is one of the lucky ones. He has the support of a loving family, a solid education and was able to find work. Many veterans aren't so fortunate.
"Veterans represent 11 percent of the adult civilian population but nearly one-third of the homeless population," said Flanagan, a 1997 graduate of Tewksbury High and a 2001 graduate of RPI. "As Sen. (Barry) Finegold pointed out, they have serious unemployment issues as well.
"In the past decade we have lost more troops to suicide then we have to (combat in) Afghanistan."
Flanagan cited 2010 study that found 40 percent of veterans had either "some" or "extreme" difficulty readjusting to civilian life. He believes the trouble is due to los of social connections and old relationships
"At home I felt a void in camaraderie, connection and purpose," he said. "In the military we were part of a tight wolf-pack, yet back with civilians we often find ourselves as the lonely outsider."
Flanagan is doing what he can to raise awareness about the problems faced by returning veterans. He has spoken to gatherings, written op-ed pieces for local publications and recently, he and fellow Tewksbury native Nick Nigro climbed the 19,000-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa to gain attention for the cause.
With nearly 45,000 troops expected to return from Iraq by the end of the year, Flanagan offered these tips for how residents can make the adjustment easier.
- Thank every soldier you meet for his or her service
- Try to go the extra mile to befriend a veteran when they return home.
- Support an advocacy program like USO, Team Red, White and Blue or the Wounded Warrior project.
These days, Flanagan is living in Cambridge and is taking graduate courses in psychology and public administration at Harvard University. Next fall, he will take a position at West Point, teaching behavioral sciences and leadership.