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Veterans tell their stories in "Portraits of Service" book

By Meghana Keshavan

(Reuters) - Despite their public displays of support on Veterans Day, most Americans cannot truly appreciate the sacrifices made by the millions of people who have served in the military during war, a former U.S. Marine Corps veteran says.

To help educate the public, John Ciecko Jr. and about 70 other veterans from the United States and Europe told their stories in a new book, "Portraits of Service: Looking into the Faces of Veterans," which was released on Sunday.

The short stories reflect the experiences of veterans, and a few still in the service, from World War Two to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Unless someone has experienced war, Ciecko says, it is difficult to comprehend the horror, as well as the camaraderie, and the after-effects of war like post traumatic stress.

"It's hard when you start thinking that most people (in the United States) just think it's just a holiday," said Ciecko, a retired 69-year-old who lives in Warren, Michigan. "They don't really give a damn about veterans."

The book's co-authors, Robert H. Miller and Andrew Wakeford, interviewed and photographed more than 400 veterans from the United States and Europe. More stories from those interviews will be in a second volume planned for next year.

"Every one of these vets has given time in their lives away, and received huge amounts of trauma," said Miller. "We want people to really understand that vets do sacrifice a ton for us to remain free."

Ciecko and active U.S. Army officer Jas Booth use their stories to inform people and to call for better benefits for U.S. veterans.

Booth, a single mother who was made homeless after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, developed cancer and found that her options were few if she left the Army and had to depend on veterans' benefits.

"I'm not just any woman with a kid - I'm a soldier," she said. "But they told me, if I left the military, I had welfare and poverty to look forward to. It was the biggest slap in the face, ever."

So she founded Final Salute Inc, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and other support to homeless female veterans.

Today, there are about 21 million veterans in the United States. And of the 2.6 million who served Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government estimates that between 13 percent and 20 percent have post-traumatic stress disorder.

"CRAZY OLD MARINE"

Ciecko calls himself "a crazy old Marine" who gets around in a wheelchair after he lost both his lower legs during his last mission in the Vietnam War. He feels that his military service and years working with a nonprofit group to help veterans work through the maze of government paperwork to get better benefits is a pay back to American soldiers who saved his family during World War Two.

His father was a Polish soldier in 1942 who was captured along with his pregnant wife, and the two were sent to separate camps. In 1943, Ciecko was born in a Nazi concentration camp. His earliest memories are of hard labor, scavenging for food, and the zebra stripes of prison fatigues.

By the time the American soldiers liberated the remote camp in Germany, the young boy's hair was white and brittle from malnutrition.

A few years after World War Two, the reunited family made it to Ellis Island and eventually to Detroit.

As a teenager, he had to choose between college and the military. It was an easy choice, Ciecko said, even though he had been offered a football scholarship.

"There was no doubt in my mind -- it was just damn important that I pay this great country back for letting my family settle here," Ciecko said.

As a Marine in the 1960s, Ciecko joined a special intelligence-gathering operations team, and he trained troops for jungle warfare in Vietnam.

"We went on some crazy ops - one time, four of us went into Cambodia to rescue a 30-man team that was captured by Vietnamese fighters," he said. "We got shot up pretty bad, but we made it out of there."

In his 10 years as a Marine, Ciecko was awarded 28 combat medals, including five Purple Hearts. He spent 20 years working for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, helping veterans secure benefits, which he says is more difficult and confusing today than it has ever been.

(Writing by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Lisa Von Ahn)

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