It’s another 300-plus days until next Veterans Day, a holiday most Americans traditionally have seen as a day off from work.
But this year was different, coming as it did in the middle of two lengthy wars, just days before it was announced that the alleged “mastermind” of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that launched those wars was to be tried in New York City, and just days after a murderous rampage at the Army’s Fort Hood in Texas where soldiers prepare for war.
“We owe our troops prayerful, considered decisions about when and where we commit them to battle to protect our security and freedom, and we must fully support them when they are deployed. We also owe them the absolute assurance that they’ll be safe here at home as they prepare for whatever mission may come.”
He was speaking specifically of Fort Hood, but the political and military establishment -- and American society generally -- are learning that safety for service personnel also means being adequately provided for between deployments and when the war is over for them.
As the country enters the ninth year in a “war on terror” that has two major fronts, the needs are growing greater.
“Fierce combat and multiple deployments are taking a heavy psychological toll on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, where one in five fighters at lower ranks suffer mental health problems,” Reuters reports. “According to the Army's latest mental health survey, soldiers said unit morale in Afghanistan had declined as the frequency of fighting had increased, suggesting record combat deaths and injuries were taking a heavy psychological toll.”
A Rand Corporation study last year found that about 20 percent of today’s combat vets experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or depression. (Other studies have put the rate as high as 35 percent.)
Approximately 300,000 vets experience homelessness at some point in the year, according to a report by the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. One in five homeless men are vets, whose numbers top 130,000.
One troubling sign here: Iraq and Afghanistan vets are likely to become homeless sooner after they’re back in the US than veterans of previous wars did. The state of the economy no doubt is a factor, but so are the multiple combat deployments many are required to make -- an important difference with Vietnam where draftees did their one tour and came home for good.
It’s no coincidence that the suicide rate among solders today is 11 percent higher than it was in Vietnam.
Like most Americans, Obama never served in the military. But he is surrounded by veterans – notably national security advisor James Jones and Veterans Affairs head Eric Shinseki, both retired generals decorated for their service as young officers in Vietnam.
Shinseki is also a former Army Chief of Staff, so he knows soldiers as well as soldiering. And more than any other VA chief before him, he’s impatient with the current level of care and treatment for veterans. Along with members of Congress, he’s instituting new and quicker ways to help service personnel before and after they become vets.
This includes expanded programs for education, medical care (including treatment of PTSD and traumatic brain injury), and civilian jobs within the federal government.
Obama recently went to Dover Air Force Base to witness the return of GI’s who’d been killed in Afghanistan. As there has been with former presidents, there was talk about whether -- as a civilian, even though he is commander in chief -- he should have saluted the caskets.
But one Marine Corps gunnery sergeant and Iraq war vet I know says he’s OK with that, pronouncing Obama’s salute “impeccable.” That may not mean much to most civilians, but it counts with those in uniform ... whether or not it’s Veterans Day.
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