We Must Do More for Our Veterans

There will be many efforts around the country this Veterans' Day to recognize veterans' service to the nation. I read that someone is offering veterans free car washes today. I suspect there will be other similar gestures. None of them, however, will provide veterans what they need and what they deserve. Too often they are out of sight and out of mind.

During the recent mid-term elections, we were overwhelmed with slogans, ads, and commentary about the economy, the deficit, health care, taxes and unemployment. These issues were important, but where was the concern about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about our military fighting there, and the poor medical and psychological treatment they receive when they return home? Did the voters and politicians even care?

Bob Herbert in the New York Times wrote recently of the tragic death of Sgt. First Class Lance Vogeler. He was "a 29-year-old who was killed a few weeks ago while serving in the Army in his 12th combat tour. That's right, his 12th : four in Iraq and eight in Afghanistan. Twelve tours may be unusual, but multiple tours : three, four, five : are absolutely normal - we don't have enough volunteers to fight these endless wars." Why would anyone allow Vogeler to return for the twelfth time? Because drastic shortages in our volunteer military made it necessary. Lance leaves two children and a pregnant wife behind.

A return to "a draft" would be almost universally unpopular, but the all-volunteer military is over-burdened, over-taxed and breaking down. There have been some discussion and legislative attempts that would conscript young men and women for a few years into either military OR civilian government service. So far, however, these attempts have been unsuccessful. That kind of legislation could provide financial incentives for direct military service, but also provisions for conscientious objection, and service in such organizations as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.

Such legislation could give us a more representative military. The present all-voluntary force has a disproportionate number of minorities and recruits from limited economic backgrounds. Moreover, service in groups such as the Peace Corps would improve the international image and impact of the United States by providing poor countries help in basic health care and for business development. A non-volunteer military would also build political pressure on the government to conclude its wars expeditiously. Most would agree that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on too long.

General Sherman told us, "War is hell." Even graphic war films like "Saving Private Ryan" can't convey what it's like. Because, thank God, they can't duplicate what it is like to be surrounded by the putrid stench of bloated and decaying bodies. It IS living hell - and our current wars are taking their toll on our all-volunteer military. George Bernard Shaw warned us, "Nations are like bees; they cannot kill except at the cost of their own lives." And it's the lives of our veterans that are most at risk -- not only in combat but after they return home.

We have to do more for our veterans when they return. Aaron Glantz has just published a book "The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle against America's Veterans." The book systematically documents the government's neglect of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Glantz, who reported from Iraq during the first years of the war, interviewed more than one hundred recent war veterans and their difficulties reintegrating into ordinary society. The book forces us to consider how America treats its veterans. The book asks, "what kind of nation deifies its soldiers and then casts them off as damaged goods?" As wounded veteran and former US Senator Max Cleland said on the book jacket, this "is a must-read for anyone who want to make the phrase, 'Support the Troops' more than a slogan."

Glantz writes elsewhere, "The high suicide rate among veterans has already emerged as a major issue for the military and the families and loved ones of military personnel." He sees the suicides of Iraq and Afghan veterans as a part of a larger, hidden trend. These vets, he argues, "have died not just as a result of suicide, but also because of vehicle accidents, motorcycle crashes, drug overdoes or other causes after being discharged from the military." The Veterans Administration has failed these men and women. It is under funded and ill-equipped to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (An anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to terrifying ordeals in which a person has faced grave physical harm.) The VA, moreover, should be offering help not only to the veterans, but also to their families where spouse abuse and broken marriages are not uncommon.

Some might argue that these honest discussions about the government's mistreatment of veterans will undermine the military's chances of "winning" the war in Afghanistan, but as the first Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin warned, "You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake." The Generals and super-patriots can spin it whatever way they want, but we will never succeed in Afghanistan. Alexander the Great couldn't, neither could the British or the Russians -- and neither will the United States.

On this Veteran's Day, however, back to our veterans and their families for whom the wars never end. We must do more for them. They deserve much better from us than patriotic rhetoric or simplistic bumper stickers.

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