JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Twenty years after the Iraq War began, the effects of war continue for some in the region.

March 20 marks two decades since the war began.

Ohio native and now-resident of Rogersville Michael Paul said he would do it all again.

“If I had a chance to go back to that battle I will, this is what I was taught to do,” said Paul. “Some of us are called to be a soldier, some of us aren’t. I was called to be a soldier.”

Paul was a sergeant in the Army for five years during the Iraq War. He says the September 11 terrorist attacks led him to enlist.

“I joined after 9/11. There were a whole lot of guys in my generation that joined the military. Sadly, a lot of them are not with us anymore, but a lot of them, including myself, joined after graduation,” Paul said.

Paul explained the chemical exposures overseas that led to health effects among those in combat.

“A lot of issues we are starting to see now are from bunkers and burn pits, sand particulates hitting their face, a lot of people have a lot of breathing issues, and long-term mental and physical illnesses,” Paul said.

Veterans who were deployed to the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and other dusty environments were often exposed to sand, dust, pollution and other airborne particles. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, military bases throughout the region used burn pits as a way to dispose of waste.

Paul’s transition out of the service led him to a path of mental illness and substance abuse, he told News Channel 11.

“People like us are trained to go into war but not out of it. They teach you how to be a solider, but not the world outside of it. When I came home, my mental status was so bad that you couldn’t really trust me. You couldn’t be around me,” Paul said. “When it was all said and done, I ended up homeless under a bridge.”

His wife Jessica and childhood friends found him when he was homeless, and a new beginning was born.

Jessica and Michael Paul started the organization Veteran’s Center of East Tennessee to help veterans mentally, physically and spiritually.

“We’re serving 200 veterans and counting a month,” Jessica said. “What we do here is we discuss suicide prevention and substance abuse along with art classes, leather shop classes, we offer a fitness room and more,” Paul said. “This place is a safe place for veterans to come to we help each other and offer everything free here, I know what it’s like to have nothing.”

For more information, visit the Veteran’s Center of East Tennessee’s website.