Back from Iraq and helping homeless vets: John Turner | Citizen | Indy Week
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Back from Iraq and helping homeless vets: John Turner 

They're on a mission, the same mission U.S. Army Capt. John Turner was on in Iraq seven years ago: Win the war and bring the troops home safe and sound. Then, Turner's FOBs—the forward operating bases for his infantry company—were in Mosul and Baghdad. Now, he and his team operate from donated space in an office mall in North Raleigh. Then, it was about winning. Now, it's about helping the veterans who've returned to North Carolina and are homeless.

Whatever you thought of the war, you'd have wanted our soldiers to think about it the way Turner did. He thought it could be won. He thought his job was to figure out how—how to make friends with the Iraqis, gather intelligence, eliminate Al-Qaeda cells and protect his troops. It was "unbelievably dangerous," Turner recalls.

Which is why no officer could afford to entertain losing. "We learned how to organize chaos. There was no hope. The media said it. But we got up every day and were determined to win something. We got out and we learned. We learned from the basics, to throw ideology out the window, be pragmatic and build coalitions."

It's taken similar conviction, if not bravery, to get Turner through four years as executive director of Veterans Leadership Council of North Carolina-Cares, which he started after he left the military. VLC-NC-Cares' goal is to create a new therapeutic residential center for homeless vets in Butner.

This mission, like the last one, Turner intends to fulfill—and I expect he will, though he has a ways to go. But he won't be alone, he insists. What counted in Iraq and what counts here is the bond among vets. When one's in trouble, others come to his aid. "No one person does anything great," he says.

The Butner center will feature peer-to-peer counseling, using vets who've successfully transitioned from war to civilian life to help their fellow vets overcome problems and achieve self-reliance.

"If they're veterans," Turner says, "and they've made it through basic training, made it through their technical schools, they served honorably, and they were honorably discharged, then all of these people can be successful, because they already have."

Whatever you thought of the war, our country owes its broken warriors the help they need to heal their wounds. That's what our national bonds require. It's why Turner's efforts have the support of Republicans and Democrats in Raleigh, including Gov. Pat McCrory and former Gov. Jim Hunt.

Even so, it's been a long, wild trip for Turner—one that, looking back, he regards with amazement.

Bear with me. The Bands4Good Challenge 2013 in Raleigh is a new competition that's like American Idol, except that the contestants present original songs and it's a fundraiser for a good cause—this year, veterans. The sponsors chose seven worthy groups; VLC-NC-Cares is one of them. Which is how Lisa Bamford, from Bands4Good, came to suggest that I meet someone who'd bent her ear about the rising ranks of homeless vets.

As it turns out, I already knew Dennis Berwyn, a Republican organizer. After we finished laughing about a campaign he ran for a candidate I didn't think should win, we got to the point. More vets are returning as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, Berwyn said, and more have post-traumatic stress syndrome or traumatic brain injuries that in past wars would've killed them. Last year, almost 9,000 in North Carolina contacted the Veterans Administration to report themselves homeless.

Berwyn's been helping Turner. You should meet him, he said.

Captain Turner? From the McCain campaign?

I remembered Turner vividly from a McCain for President event in Cary late in 2008. Turner gave a stem-winder of a speech, which, he tells me, was on the necessity of electing McCain so that we could, yes, win the war. What I remember is a young man I decided would soon be a candidate for something—and a formidable one.

Turner had gone from being a captain in Baghdad who hailed from Indiana to a campaign co-chair for McCain in North Carolina in a year and half. The idea came from his fellow captains in Baghdad, all of whom regarded themselves—and him—as "superheroes" who could do anything and who had figured out how to win the war (answer: a surge). Because Turner was getting out, his fellow captains tasked him with finding a presidential candidate to back their plan. "Delusional," Turner laughs. "Highly delusional."

But Turner got an introduction to McCain through a journalist he'd met in Baghdad, and he was off and running through Iowa, South Carolina, Florida and North Carolina, where to make a living he sold energy-efficient lighting—though not much of it.

When McCain lost, Turner's hope ("delusional") of being in charge of Iraq reconstruction evaporated, but fellow Republicans did suggest he should run for Congress.

Instead, he listened to a voice that told him to complete the mission, which was now about homeless vets.

Thus, he turned his coalition-building skills on Raleigh. One contact led to another and before long he was meeting with former Supreme Court Justice Burley Mitchell, a Democrat.

"John and the other folks have been working for essentially nothing so far and giving the full measure of their devotion to helping veterans return to normalcy," Mitchell told me. "It's a labor of love."

When Bev Perdue was governor, her administration leased eight unused buildings at Butner to VLC-NC-Cares for 15 years—for $1. The group is pursing housing grants from the McCrory administration, as well as VA grants, to renovate the first building, which will have 150 beds. All eight buildings can house 400, and Turner envisions a working farm someday as well.

McCrory himself, on his inauguration day, headlined a major VLC-NC-Cares fundraiser that netted $200,000, the first real money they'd seen.

Turner admits, he never expected it would take four years to get the project off the ground. But he doesn't know how to quit. "How do you walk away from something you truly care about?" he says.


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