November 15, 2012 —
On Sunday, we honored America’s 22 million veterans. Nine million of these are 65 and older, veterans of long-ago wars. Another nine million are between 18 and 64. Now, our newest generation of veterans—2.4 million Americans who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan—are arriving back home to face many challenges. Far too many will not get all the help they need and, considering their sacrifices, certainly not all that they are owed.
Today an estimated one third of all homeless people in the U.S. are veterans, as are one fifth of all suicide victims. The institutions that are supposed to help meet the needs of these returning warriors—the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs—are overwhelmed, a condition acknowledged not long ago by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Our veterans deserve better. Many will have trouble finding jobs; the unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is around 10%, well above the national average. In addition, war has left many with physical and/or mental wounds. It is estimated that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) affect one in five veterans of these two present-day wars.
Armistice Day, the predecessor of Veterans Day, commemorated the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” We mark the date November 11th because on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 that war’s ceasefire began. World War I claimed 8.5 million military lives worldwide with another 21 million wounded, including U.S. casualties of 53,500 deaths and 63,200 wounded. Back then, soldiers who suffered from emotional or mental problems were described as “shell shocked” because it was believed that the blast impact of exploding shells produced a concussion that disrupted the physiology of the brain. Those who returned from World War I came to be known as the Lost Generation and each war since then has seen its own numbers of the lost. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be no exception.
Nearly 100 years later, we still do not fully understand how shock waves that ripple through a soldier’s brain from an exploding bomb may result in lasting mental or physical harm. What we do know is that traumatic brain injuries—both physical damage from shrapnel and concussive injury—are considered the “signature wound” of soldiers coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (This is because the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) or roadside bomb has been a major weapon against our troops.)
War is expensive, as is defense. Our annual U.S. military budget is $740 billion, a stunning figure that amounts to a full 60% of the federal government’s discretionary spending. The human cost of war is also expensive. Nearly 5,000 troops have been killed in Iraq and more than 2,000 in Afghanistan. More than 50,000 have been wounded. Expensive or not, we must find the funds to pay for the best health care and the best support services possible for these men and women. This is the least we owe them.
In addition, there is something else in our power to change. Most Americans have little understanding of the combat veteran’s pain and suffering. Simply acknowledging this would be a step forward. As individuals, many of us could also volunteer our help or financial support to the wide array of non-profit organizations that assist veterans. (For a list of dozens of organizations that help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, their families, and survivors, you can visit: http://coalitionforveterans.org/who-we-are ).
There are many ways to honor our veterans. The thing is, we should do it on more than one day a year.
[One Iraq War veteran tells his story. See page 5.]