War is hell, even if you survive
Not much better
When you're back.
Forget for a moment the death, devastation, deprivation, disease, displacement and despair visited upon civilians in war zones. Let's briefly contemplate the fate of soldiers. Ours, anyway. We really don't know much about theirs except for the reported killings of "suspected militants." And, "suspected militant" has come to mean anybody we happen to kill--man, woman, or child.
Our own casualty numbers are murky too. We eventually learn the total daily death count. But as U.S. soldiers meet their end each day, their numbers are mingled with NATO's casualties, obscuring the number of Americans killed. Of course photos of the dead, dying, anguished, or their caskets are heavily restricted. So too are any frontline dispatches detailing gushing blood, dismembered limbs, hellish burns, or piercing screams. Censorship sanitizes all that.
Once vets return home, the charade continues. Military and VA hospitals, while far from glitzy, offer some of the best and most efficient medical care around--if your wounds are visible. But if the wound is to your mind, as most are these days, good luck. Many returned troops do receive permanent disability coverage and care, but just the lucky ones. Thousands more struggle to get appointments, struggle to get diagnoses, struggle to get treatments, and struggle to get disability awards. Kafka would be proud.
Meanwhile post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rages through the land. One courageous researcher has concluded that the Pentagon's official estimate of wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan--32,000--should really run about 500,000. OK, maybe some of those were disturbed when they went in, or later got bonked on the head in a ballgame. But do you really think that hundreds of thousands of men and women can return from repeated blood-curdling scenes of death and suffering without mental damage?
Suicide is another damning indicator. In 2009, 347 U.S. troops were killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, while 381 in war zones committed suicide. Once home, it gets worse. Between 2005 and 2008, more than 1,000 California veterans of the two wars died from suicides, drug overdoses, and traffic accidents--three times the number killed in combat. Powerful medicines restrain that instinct in countless others.
A similar minefield faces veterans who fall ill. Iraq and Afghanistan offer a toxic cornucopia of ways to get sick, from polluted barracks to poisonous fires to depleted uranium. Some of these take years to germinate, but then one day turn deadly. "You say your lung disease stems from your service? Prove it!" The complaint's dismissal sounds like a reprise of Agent Orange.
Thank goodness at least Congress supports our troops, you say. Remember all those yellow ribbons? Well, some members do and some don't, depending on their political affiliation. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America's report card shows that 91 of the 94 lawmakers getting an "A" for helping vets were Democrats. Of the 154 receiving a "D" or "F," 142 were Republicans. Public praise on camera doesn't necessarily correlate with votes for financial support on the House or Senate floors.
My own organization, Veterans For Peace, was recently asked by The Nation magazine which of the proposed veterans benefit bills now before Congress is our top priority. The answer: none of the above. Our top priority, and that of a sensible nation, is simply to stop the wars. Now. That in turn would stop the production of new veterans. And the current shortfall of care would eventually disappear. Without customers, no more problem.
OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.