A milestone in Iraq as US ends combat phase. How to mark it?

It's premature to declare 'mission accomplished,' and many Americans didn't support the Iraq war. Yet it seems right to somehow honor these returning soldiers.

Unless you were on vacation last week, it was hard to miss the media reports of the last US combat brigade leaving Iraq. It was a watershed moment, made poignant by interviews with departing soldiers, some brought to tears.

Shouldn’t the United States mark this end of seven years of combat somehow? Returning soldiers receive a hero’s welcome in countless communities. But what about the country as a whole honoring the troops that have served in Iraq?

More than 2 million service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, with more multiple deployments than at any time. In Iraq, at least 4,400 of them lost their lives, while nearly 32,000 were wounded. Must we wait until Veterans Day to acknowledge their sacrifice?

That’s as complex a question as the Iraq war itself. The American combat mission there is officially over as of Aug. 31. And yet it’s still premature to declare “mission accomplished.”

The US has 50,000 uniformed security personnel in the country to assist with training Iraqi security forces – and these American troops could be used for combat if needed. They are not scheduled to come home until the end of next year, though they could stay longer.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s government has still to work out its new leadership, despite a parliamentary election March 7. Since the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, citizens have the beginnings of a democracy. Mercifully, a brutal civil war is now largely behind them. But Iraqis are weighed down by unreliable basic services, corruption, a lack of jobs, and sporadic violence.

Many Americans didn’t support this costly war, sold on faulty intelligence as part of the overall war on terrorism and in the hope of establishing a democracy beachhead in the Arab world. That larger war on terrorism – the longest in US history – towers like the mountains of Afghanistan, where the US is engaged in another troop “surge.”

Yet since the Vietnam War, when returning soldiers were shunned, Americans have learned to distinguish between the service of a soldier and the politics of war. That the men and women who went to Iraq are volunteers instead of draftees doesn’t make their sacrifice any less painful to them and their families.

If you talk to veterans’ groups about honoring, they are less concerned with ticker-tape parades (World War II and the Gulf war had them, but not Vietnam) than with what happens to soldiers when they get home. Will the country deliver on promised benefits?

More than a million soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq have returned to civilian life, where many still need jobs, housing, education, and health care. As the Monitor reported Aug. 16, “experts say the country is woefully unprepared to handle” them.

Honoring veterans by helping them is not just a government responsibility. Colleges, employers, landlords – communities – need to support this special and growing population. And individuals can too, whether by volunteering at a local veterans center or remembering those troops still in the field by sending care packages.

Next week, President Obama plans to give a high-profile speech about the troop drawdown. National ambivalence about a costly war with no definitive end will make his task difficult. But perhaps he can find a way to gather a nation’s gratitude for the men and women in uniform who have put their lives on the line.

[Editor's note: A detail from an earlier version about the public's treatment of returning Vietnam soldiers was omitted from this version.]

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