As Iraq War Ends, Spotlight Turns to New Generation of Veterans

The U.S. is officially bringing its mission in Iraq to a close after nearly nine years at war, the loss of more than 4,400 U.S. service members and more than 32,000 wounded in combat.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, marked the occasion with ceremonies Thursday in Baghdad.

"I was watching coverage of them folding up the colors this morning and I actually did have kind of a chill," said Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and an Iraq War veteran.

He spoke on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show Thursday.

Tarantino said he feels good about the war's end, but remains wary of the road ahead for troops returning home and for those continuing to fight in Afghanistan.

"It makes me wonder and it makes me worry, is this country really ready to take care of a generation of veterans? So far, we're barely getting it right right now."

He said he is concerned about potential funding cuts to the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans Affairs, which would hinder mental health or employment services, among others, for active-duty service members and veterans.

There are more than two million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who qualify for services, he said.

On Wednesday, in a speech to soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., President Obama pledged support to returning service members, including a national effort to put veterans to work in civilian life.

"We worked with Congress to pass a tax credit so that companies have the incentive to hire vets," said the president, adding that First Lady Michelle Obama has worked to get commitments from employers in the private sector to create 100,000 jobs for veterans.

The last days of the Iraq draw-down will continue through December 31. More than 5,000 troops remain in the country, and a small number of forces are expected to remain in Iraq after the New Year to provide counter-terrorism training to Iraqis. Defense Secretary Panetta has said some 40,000 troops will remain in the Gulf region.