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Iraq vets just beginning their fight: expert

After nearly nine years of combat, the official end of the war in Iraq has come.

More than one million U.S. troops served in Iraq, nearly 4,500 were killed, and 32,000 were wounded.

But, even as President Obama declares the war to be over, a different kind of battle is just beginning for the troops coming home.

Unemployment, says Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is the biggest challenge facing veterans as they return to the U.S. He saysthere's a 20 percent unemployment rate for members of his organization nationally, and in some states, such as Michigan, it's more than 30 percent.

U.S. officials shut down war in Iraq

"What is important for folks to realize is that, yes, the war is over, but the battles continues," Rieckhoff said on "The Early Show" Thursday. "Our veterans are coming home from multiple tours to the toughest economy in decades, so our message for folks around the holidays is, we need you to step up and support our veterans. Don't turn the page on Iraq just because they have pulled out. A great thing you can do is hire a vet. They are dynamic, they're strong and are incredible leaders, and can help at home just like they did overseas."

When servicemen and women return from war, Rieckhoff said, they need support from their entire community.

"They need a job. They need mental health support. They need family counseling sometimes, and they just need the entire community to really rally around them," he said. "We're really concerned as a veterans group that America is just going to move on and close the page and forget about us. And what we need all Americans to do right now is double down their efforts, don't let us repeat the mistakes of Vietnam, support your community-based nonprofits that are helping step up and support veteran groups and volunteer in your community. No matter how you feel about the war, we can all rally around these folks coming home, and that will set us all up for success."

But the war may not be over for many American troops, since soldiers are called back to duty, often redeployed to places like Afghanistan, "Early Show" co-anchor Erica Hill remarked.

That's the "new normal" for military personnel, Rieckhoff said. "More than a million of them have served more than once. They continue to redeploy," he said.

One of the biggest concerns with that kind of stress is the rising suicide rate, Reickhoff said. "Last month in the Army, there were over 29 active duty suicides, just in the Army alone -- so there is tremendous mental health stress. There's a real family stress that continues year over year. And that's not going to go away with this new announcement."

But the U.S., Rieckhoff said, seems to have made an effort to discern policy from the people who go to war.

"We have learned to separate the war from the warriors," he said. "What Vietnam War vets came home to was so different than what we came home to, and that was a real national embarrassment (the way Vietnam vets were treated). I think we've turned that page, and now we see people supporting us in every way at the local level, and that is a good step forward. We have to keep up that momentum and we have got to try to make every day Veterans Day. That is our goal at IAVA, and I think the goal for all Americans, not just around holiday times, but the next few years as these struggles continue."