Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Supporting our troops?

Day before yesterday President Obama told a group of Disabled American Veterans that American's military involvement in Iraq will end, as scheduled, by the end of next year. Our involvement in Afghanistan, however, continues.

The veterans group's most vigorous applause sounded in response to President Obama's promise of the nation's continuing support of wounded soldiers; which, if done as promised, will be terribly expensive.

President Obama:
We’re directing unprecedented resources to treating the signature wounds of today’s wars -- traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  (Applause.)  And I recently signed into law the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act.  That’s a long name, but let me tell you what it does.  It not only improves treatment for traumatic brain injury and PTSD, it gives new support to many of the caregivers who put their own lives on hold to care for their loved one.  (Applause.)
And as so many of you know, PTSD is a pain like no other -- the nightmares that keep coming back, the rage that strikes suddenly, the hopelessness that’s led too many of our troops and veterans to take their own lives.  So today, I want to say in very personal terms to anyone who is struggling -- don’t suffer in silence.  It’s not a sign of weakness to reach out for support -- it’s a sign of strength.  Your country needs you.  We are here for you.  We are here to help you stand tall.  Don’t give up.  Reach out.  (Applause.)
We’re making major investments in awareness, outreach, and suicide prevention -- hiring more mental health professionals, improving care and treatment.  For those of you suffering from PTSD, we’re making it a whole lot easier to qualify for VA benefits.  From now on, if a VA doctor confirms a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that is enough -- no matter what war you served in.  (Applause.)
Back in the late 60's and early 70's, I was a full-blown hippie peacenik. I was also a person of great passion and less sense, who identified the warrior firmly with the war and demonstrated against both. And who served in Vietnam, I'm sure, thought just as highly of my actions as I did of theirs. It was not until I stood in line at he Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall that I understood that Vietnam soldiers had done what they'd done either because they had no choice (there was a draft in those days) or because they loved their country, or both.

Vietnam Vets, as nearly as I can tell from those I've know well, came home with physical injuries, disease, PTSD, depression, drug addiction, sleep disorders, etc. They also came home to a mixed welcome; little help, less public support, and a strong message that they should just get over their war experiences and get on with ordinary life. Those of us on the home front either lacked the perceptiveness, the will, or the information to spot how many of them were in real trouble.

The experience was largely the same for Gulf War veterans.

U.S. Army soldiers from 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division are seen on board a C-17 aircraft at Baghdad International Airport as they begin their journey back to the United States, July 13, 2010. (AP)
The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are a complicated issue for Americans. A lot of us, including evidently some who are fighting over there, are not sure why we're there, and what we're supposed to accomplish. On Point yesterday had a stunning first hour discussing the war from the perspective of the American soldier -- all of whom did, after all, volunteer to serve. They joined up for a mix of reasons -- personal, financial, patriotic. But they went where our policy makers told them to go; did what our policy makers told them to do. And if they didn't get killed, they eventually came back home to the rest of us, deserving what from the rest of us?

Yesterday while listening to On Point, I finally got that anyone serving in Iraq or Afghanistan goes over there as one person and come back as a different one. Which means it is foolish of us to expect  returning soldiers  simply to pick up where they left off in their own lives. We can either abandon them or ante-up what it costs to give them the help that a lot of them need.

It is so easy to stick a "Support our Troops" sticker on one's car and feel a swell of patriotism. But how we feel does not help these returning soldiers. This is a democracy, after all; a majority of us elected the people who sent them to war. Does that or doesn't that make these men and women's iffy emotional and physical future our national responsibility?

The kind of help these soldiers need will span decades and cost billions. It seems to me that as a nation we have a somewhat spotty history of looking after our veterans. I would argue that anyone who supports the troops with a bumper sticker, but isn't willing to have our government ante-up financially to help those same troops after they stop fighting, should remove that bumper sticker.

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