Show returning veterans they are welcome home

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As a nation, we do a good job of recognizing the men and women who defend our great country. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from airmen who are astounded by the outpouring of gratitude from total strangers who see them in uniform and applaud them in an airport or buy their lunch at a restaurant or just stop and say thanks for their service. As a service, we are thankful and humbled by America’s support of its airmen.

Now, as we wrap up America’s longest war, airmen are coming home. Unfortunately, for many, coming home doesn’t mean their battles are over.

Cpt. Molly Mae Potter is just one of many airmen who faced such battles. A flight test engineer in Afghanistan, Molly Mae was doing what she was born to do. She developed a love for the Air Force in college as she studied engineering. A few years later, she found herself in the backseat of an F-16 conducting flight tests over the deserts of Nevada —living the dream.

It was from this assignment that Molly Mae deployed to Afghanistan, twice. While deployed, she was severely injured as a result of an enemy attack and her life changed.

After returning from the deployment, she went from being a star officer, earning the title of wing company grade officer of the year, to one who struggled to focus on a single task or even make it through a full day of work.

She distanced herself from family and friends as she worked long hours and refused to take leave. Eventually her marriage ended in divorce. She suffered from anxiety, restlessness, an eating disorder and depression. Molly Mae was out of the war zone, but her battle was far from over.

Thankfully, she had leadership who cared. Her chain of command recognized her steep decline and took action. Her commander involved her mother, without whom, Molly Mae says, she wouldn’t have had the confidence to tell healthcare professionals what she was experiencing.

Three years after returning home from her deployment, Molly Mae was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of a traumatic brain injury and the emotional and physiological trauma from things she experienced and saw in Afghanistan.

She struggled with her treatment, but persevered. Molly Mae was given a service dog named Bella, who she credits with changing her outlook on life and therapy. She was honorably discharged in November 2013 and today praises the phenomenal mental health professionals from both the Air Force and the Veterans Affairs Department who treated her.

Molly Mae’s struggles are not over, but she is doing much better. Today you can find her working as a principal test engineer for Dell in Texas. Bella goes to work with her.

Many more airmen, as well as soldiers, sailors and marines, have returned home from deployments in recent years. And there will be more returning in the future.

Unfortunately many will return home to a struggle.

Whether that struggle is learning to walk on prosthetic legs or learning how to sleep through the night, it’s important that we, as Americans, continue to recognize that our support is critical to their recovery. Molly Mae and I hope that her story will encourage other servicemen and women to seek the help they need. Please welcome them home with open arms and a sympathetic ear.

Welsh is a four-star general and the 20th chief of staff of the United States Air Force.