Halstead remembers the "red mist" -- the grotesque outcome of a human body triggering a roadside bomb or an IED, a horrifying acronym that stands for Improvised Explosive Device. Suddenly that person you knew, a man or woman in uniform just like you, was completely gone. When things like that happened, it wasn't about country and cause, it was about you just getting home.
"The first week after I got back home, people said, 'Thank you,'" said Halstead, who turned 40 during his hitch in Iraq. "I said, 'Thank you for what?' I just wanted to get home. We did what we had to to get home. War in itself -- wherever you stand on this is one thing, but whenever you're over there, you're not fighting a war. You're fighting to come home. You're fighting for me and my buddy to come home. That's our war. To get through this. At the end of the day, we do care who wins, and obviously we want it to be us, but really at the end of the day, deep down, everyone just wants to get home to their family, to their life, before ..."
It is the reason that Major League Baseball announced on Monday the launch of a national campaign called "Welcome Back Veterans." This is an apolitical series of national fundraising and awareness initiatives over the Fourth of July weekend and Sept. 11 to support the ongoing return of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, an effort started by a group of citizens led by Mets chairman Fred Wilpon with the full support of MLB, Major League Baseball Advanced Media and the McCormick Foundation.
For games throughout the July 4 weekend and on Sept. 11, all MLB clubs will wear "Stars & Stripes" caps that are available for sale to the public, with a portion of the proceeds going to Welcome Back Veterans. These official New Era caps can be purchased at the MLB.com Shop, a way to help others.
All home teams over the July 4 weekend will host ceremonies honoring veterans in their community, with veterans throwing out the first pitches. For games that day, "Welcome Back Veterans" will adorn the bases and home plates. There will be custom lineup cards, with a place for a local veteran to place his or her signature. Among many fundraising activities, each club will auction off a set of bases, game-worn caps and a specially designed team jersey to benefit Welcome Back Veterans.
"Major League Baseball considers it both an obligation and a privilege to assist our troops in any way we can," said MLB president and chief operating officer Bob DuPuy, a veteran who served a year in Vietnam and received the Army Commendation Medal for his service. "Welcome Back Veterans was created to help our brave men and women make a successful transition to civilian life when their service to their country has ended. We ask that all Major League Baseball fans join us on the July Fourth weekend and on Sept. 11th in this grand-scale effort to raise funds and bring awareness to this vital cause."
"I congratulate Major League Baseball on this extraordinary act of compassion for our troops throughout our Independence Day weekend," said General David L. Grange, retired U.S. Army Brigadier General and president and CEO of the McCormick Foundation. "It's a need I don't think many Americans understand yet, but they will. We believe everyone is accountable to the future of our nation. No one can sit on the sidelines. We're going to care for our retiring troops and their families, because it's the responsibility of the nation. If you go back to President Calvin Coolidge, he said, 'A nation who forgets its veterans will itself be forgotten.'"
Only the future will determine when troops will come home from those theaters of combat. Still, it happens all the time, some coming, some going. And to those involved, coming home often seems so hard to do, logistically and emotionally.
Meghan Meade was "scared" to come home.
When you have lived the life she had been living, trying to make her best judgments every day about "who to trust and who not to trust" on the streets of Iraq, doing what you are told to do, hearing all the debate about your mission back home, listening to some of the "strange stories" you'd heard about treatment of other returning vets, you didn't know what to expect. You knew that a lot of school kids had been writing you and you knew you were loved, but you weren't sure what to expect.
"There was a huge sign on the front of the house and it said, 'Welcome Home, Meghan,' recalls Meade, a staff sergeant E5 in the Air National Guard, who joined the service in 2002 to "see the world" outside Long Island and get free college tuition. "But I made my parents and my brothers promise not to tell anyone I was coming home, because I was scared to come home. I didn't know how people would react. Everyone had very strange stories about how they're perceived, and how they're taken back from their loved ones, from friends and family, even the public. Because not everyone is for the war and stuff like that. I was nervous.
"I knew I had changed after everything we had been through, and I didn't want to deal with any of that. I wanted to just sleep, and see my mom and my dad and my brothers, and see my guys because I missed them from the second we pulled away from the base. I missed them. They were my new family, and I wanted to bring them home with my old family, so that everyone could hang out."
For Meade, there was so much to love about coming home. You could drink milk again, something you couldn't get in Iraq because it was not pasteurized. You could just "walk around, without putting on gear, without having to tell someone exactly where you were going and having to be in uniform. Being able to sleep a little longer or take a nap if I wanted to, or turn on the TV. To make food that was good."
There also was so much to fear about coming home -- so many post-return traumatic experiences by colleagues already.
"All the guys I came back with, they still to this day, they all feel 'different,'" she said. "You can't really put your finger on it. Unfortunately, you turn to drinking, you do things that you wouldn't normally do. We've lost a couple of guys just this past week. Another of my very close friends, who I was extremely close with over there, he died in a drunk-driving accident, 3 o'clock in the morning on Wednesday. We don't know why. I had spoken to him earlier that week. You just don't feel normal. You almost seek adventure, or thrills, to feel normal again.
"Generally, what's hard about reintegrating back into everyday civilian life is that it's not structured. Military life is very structured. You wake up at this time, you eat this, you go to bed, you work, you know exactly what you're doing to get the mission for the day. You have so much freedom when you come back home, that you don't know what to do with yourself. You don't know what you're supposed to be doing. Your whole mindset is focused on: 'There's a mission. What am I supposed to be doing?'
"To just have total freedom is a shellshock. You don't know what to do. ... The military life, especially in Iraq, is so structured, you don't have any time to think for yourself. There are even days designated for laundry, and time. There is absolutely nothing left up to your own imagination. So coming back here and transferring into freedom, if you will, it was overwhelming. It's extremely overwhelming to be able to make every decision on your own, when for nine months you didn't have to do any of that."
At the news conference, where he was flanked on his left by six returning veterans, Wilpon began by saying, "This is like a dream come true." That is how it is supposed to be for the average military person in combat overseas, finally coming home.
That is not always the case.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans under the age of 24 have an unemployment rate that is three times the national average. Thousands of younger veterans begin their military service after high school. After their service, many express the desire to go back to school, but have difficulty accomplishing their goals.
Additionally, according to the New England Journal of Medicine (July 2004), one in three Iraq veterans and one in nine Afghanistan veterans will suffer from a mental health problem, ranging from depression to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, upon their return home. That's what Meade has seen happening already among her fellow veterans, and it is one of the reasons Wilpon began efforts a year ago to bring this vision to fruition.
"About a year ago, I asked our team when we were in Washington whether they would go to the Walter Reed [Army] Hospital, and everybody voluntarily came," Wilpon said. "We spent most of our day there, talking to the veterans and the troops who had just come back from Afghanistan and Iraq. You couldn't imagine just how proud we were, how proud the players were. Because the sacrifices they were going through -- they didn't want any awards. They didn't want any medals. They just wanted to serve their country.
"When I left there, I said to my wife, Judy, 'We've got to do something more than just going to the hospital.' We need to, in my view, tell all Americans that we're not sharing the sacrifice of our armed forces. We should all realize that. They're burdened with the sacrifice -- although they don't call it a burden -- for our freedom and our way of life. We went home, and I talked to some of my buddies. ... We decided, let's get something together, whereby we could provide certain services that the government either can't provide, by law, or aren't getting to them as fast as they would like. ... We thought about fundraising -- every dollar that came in, we'd bear the administrative costs, and every dollar that came in would go out as a dollar of value to the troops and their families. A lot of what the government does -- and they do a lot -- can't include the families.
"The second thing we thought about was jobs. How do you get the veterans back the second week, the second, third and fifth and 10th week back. How do you get them back to society where they belong, at the highest levels? Because this is a voluntary service and these people are very well-trained and did their jobs very well. So we went and found that we could get corporations to tell us they will have jobs and they will open their arms for the men and women who have served us."
Wilpon gestured at Travelers Insurance CEO Jay Fishman, who was in attendance at the news conference, in citing just one example of a corporation that is stepping up. He said Travelers has committed 2,000 job opportunities. Another example is 1-800-FLOWERS. "We have 40,000 to 50,000 job [opportunity] commitments," Wilpon said. "We hope to get to 100,000."
Wilpon said the goal also is to raise $100 million in funds, and that "we have a significant numbers of people who have already committed." Grange, who joined forces six months ago with Wilpon in this initiative, noted that the McCormick Foundation has helped veterans for a half century and stressed the importance that every donor's intention is being met. "One hundred percent of the donations goes to the cause," he said. "That's important in this, that 100 percent and then some goes to the cause."
According to Wilpon, three major universities -- Cornell, Michigan and Stanford -- are collaborating to create a "protocol" for helping returning veterans -- and their family members -- avoid mental health problems commonly associated with life after combat. He said this will be free of charge and available soon.
"That would be the start of what we hope will be a network around the country, connected with the V.A. hospitals and the Department of Defense areas, where we will have the troops and their families treated for free," Wilpon said. "There is a lot of value in that, not only because of the people who are doing it, but the confidentiality and the fact that some of the troops are hesitant in getting help in these areas. Which they shouldn't be, but they are. So we hope to provide that service."
Wilpon likened it to the 1970s, "when heart disease and cancer needed to be networked around the country, so that we could get the best minds to solve all the problems, that's the way they did it. Now you see, in the last 40 or 50 years, we've done a lot of proper treatment and some discoveries on cancer and heart disease. We hope to have the same for depression, for post-traumatic syndrome and all the things that some of the troops have seen happen to them while they were there fighting on our behalf. Their families are just as important."
Major Leaguers are lining up behind this cause.
"We as players are extremely proud not only to wear these caps but also to represent and pay our respects to our returning veterans," said Mets third baseman David Wright, who comes from the Naval community of Norfolk, Va., and was among the speakers at the news conference. "Growing up in a military town in Virginia, I have friends and family who have given up their lives to serve a cause. Because of these men and women, I get the opportunity to play a game and live in freedom. I hope we remember these veterans."
Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon has been a staunch ally of returning vets with his own support of the "Wounded Warrior Project." "When it comes to supporting our troops," he said, "everyone in Major League Baseball is on the same team." That includes Giants pitcher Barry Zito, who in 2005 founded "Strikeouts for Troops." It has raised nearly $1 million, with 100 percent of those funds going to wounded veterans and their families.
All creative materials for Welcome Back Veterans, including television, radio and online creative, were produced pro bono by McCann Erickson North America in conjunction with the Ad Council. This includes a public service announcement for Welcome Back Veterans narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks and directed by Bennett Miller, nominated for an Oscar for his direction of "Capote."
"Whether you agree with this war or don't -- and frankly we are trying to keep this apolitical -- you have to look at these fine men and women and say, 'They're the ones who are serving,' Wilpon said.
"Thank God they're not being received as the people who came back from the Vietnam War."
Today, Halstead is following Wilpon's Mets and loving every minute of his time with his family. His daughter was a "little girl" with braces when he left, and when he returned, "she was going through the changes in her life." He has a son who was "5 years old then, now he's 7 years old, he's playing baseball, sports, I'm having real conversations with him."
But it was not easy coming home. The first week back, Halstead was afraid to drive.
"Because of all the roadside bombs," he said, his mind still in Iraq. This is a man who had spent 19 years in the Marines before going to the Air Force. "Just regular trash on the regular side of the road -- someone might have discarded a bottle, but in Iraq that was a bomb. So I was afraid to drive. To go under an overpass on the highway, that's where they would always throw their grenades at us or shoot at us, so I was really apprehensive about doing that. So I tried not to drive, tried not to go anywhere in a car.
"Sleeping. Just sleeping. It was really weird just to sleep. Knowing nothing is happening. Because at night the sirens would go off, we would be under attack. They would shoot mortars at us in the middle of the night. We drove all hours of the night to where we had to go. We would sleep on the sides of these little fire bases, and we would sleep on our trucks. We'd pull in, go from the front of the truck to the back of the truck, all we did was take our gear off and go into the sleeping bay. To sleep on a bed with a pillow, instead of using my pants for a pillow, was real nice.
"Not having to check my slippers for snakes, scorpions and camel spiders was really a pleasure. I would take a hot shower anytime I wanted to. Eat what I wanted to eat, go into the refrigerator -- just being a real person."
That is often easier said than done, which is why Welcome Back Veterans is being conducted. It is not a cause for war, but a cause for those who make it back home. After all, in the national pastime, the mere act of your own people coming home is traditionally cause for rejoicing. For more information, visit WelcomeBackVeterans.org.