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3:48 AM Sun, Sept. 23rd

VA event honors veterans of Iraq, Afghan wars

Ken Hedler/The Daily Courier<br>
Jonathan Ohst of the Arizona National Guard unit in Prescott holds his 1-year-old son, Caleb, during the second annual Operation Welcome Home event Sunday.

Ken Hedler/The Daily Courier<br> Jonathan Ohst of the Arizona National Guard unit in Prescott holds his 1-year-old son, Caleb, during the second annual Operation Welcome Home event Sunday.

PRESCOTT - Robert Collins of the Arizona National Guard works in the commercial refrigeration field as a civilian.

But as a National Guard member, he faced other extremes in the Iraqi desert during a 16-month deployment that began in 2005. He did combat duty in the capital of Baghdad and nearby Ramadi.

Collins, who is part of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 158th Infantry in Prescott but is no longer on active duty, described his experience as being eye-opening.

"It has opened my eyes to a lot of the stuff that is going on in the world," he said.

Collins, 30, of Goodyear said he saw other cultures and religions in the predominantly Muslim country, how they celebrate their faiths differently from Americans as well as the way they dress.

He was among an estimated 90 members of his National Guard unit who attended the second annual Operation Welcome Home Sunday on the grounds of the Bob Stump VA Medical Center in Prescott. More than 90 percent of the unit members have served in Afghanistan, 1st Sgt. Chris Chelone of the unit said.

VA officials organized the event for veterans of the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars and members of the National Guard, and invited them and their families. Melissa Davis, program coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans at the hospital, said she expected 600 to 700 people to attend the event.

The event included a barbecue of hotdogs and hamburgers, a band playing oldies and booths manned by people who dispensed information about services for veterans. VA public information officer Ame Callahan announced Credit Union West also awarded $500 scholarships to veterans Michael Spradling, Michael McBride and David Huber.

The event was "phenomenal, very supportive," said Jonathan Ohst, a security guard with the National Guard unit who faces a possible deployment to Afghanistan in 2011.

Operation Welcome Home contrasted with the reception Vietnam War veteran Philip Chavis experienced when he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport after his discharge from the Army in 1973.

Recalling the unpopularity at home of the Vietnam War, Chavis said he remembers protesters spitting on returning soldiers and calling them "baby killer."

Chavis, 58, of Paulden said he contracted bronchitis from exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam and underwent six operations for cancer. He served with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Brigade in Vietnam.

Now retired from carpentry work, Chavis said he has volunteered for 20 years at the VA hospital and serves with a color guard detachment. He displayed his Warriors Medal of Valor on his uniform.

The VA hospital has provided excellent medical care, said Jamie Reinhardt-Larue, an Iraq War veteran who admitted suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and underwent two knee surgeries.

Reinhardt-Larue, 32, of Prescott Valley said she served as an Army medic with the 109th Medical Battalion in Camp Anaconda near Baghdad, and met her future husband, Donald Larue, there. "It made me more grateful for everyday life in the United States, ... being able to go to school, being able to choose what I can do with my life," she said about her service in Iraq.

She said she is pursuing a master's degree in social work from Arizona State University while serving an internship at the VA hospital. She also teaches high school equivalency classes at Yavapai College.