Commentary: U.S. must do better for war veterans

The Merced Sun-StarSeptember 12, 2011 

As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9-11, we should bear in mind the Americans who have done the most for the nation since that date in infamy.

Those are the 2.3 million women and men who have served in the U.S. armed forces over the past decade and gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The arguments about America's involvement in both wars need not be raised on such a solemn occasion. The wisdom of the policy is moot in light of a much more urgent issue.

And that is: are we taking good enough care of those who have served, once they come home?

The short answer is no.

The long answer is hell no.

It's all well and good for Americans and Mercedians to turn out and honor veterans and first-responders and conduct parades and play taps and fly flags and stick yellow ribbons on our bumpers.

It's a whole different deal when it comes to supporting in tangible, practical ways those who've marched toward the sound of guns for nearly a decade.

It's time -- past time -- for us to put our money and votes where our palms over our hearts are.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association noted this week that the unemployment rate among veterans from Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom is 9.8 percent, down from last month's 12.4 percent but nearly half a percentage point higher than the national unemployment rate.

One blogger, Jim Gourley, posted an item last week that August was the first month there were no American combat deaths in Iraq. "So that means we can say with certainty that more veterans of that war died as a result of PTSD/depression at home than they did of direct enemy action in-country. .... Regardless of when these troops leave, these wars will continue for at least another decade. Let's see what everyone's doing with their yellow ribbons then."

In the Huffington Post this week, Loren Berlin calculated that one in five veterans of our two wars suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. That may be about average for the age demographic of young Americans who did not go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan. But it's still a troubling number.

The point is this: We owe our active duty military and our veterans a helluva lot. And they're not getting what they deserve when they come back from the deserts and mountains.

Bloomberg reported in late August that the administration is debating ways to cut $420 billion in national security spending, including $330 billion from the Pentagon, over the next 10 years. Obama told the VFW that "We cannot, we must not, we will not balance the budget on the backs of our veterans."

Isn't it pretty to think so?

When I came back to Kansas after 13 months as a soldier in Vietnam, I went to the VA to see a shrink. He was from South America. After I realized he didn't know what the word "draft" meant, I stood up, half-saluted and walked out. Hell, I thought, I can't afford to be nuts.

What soldiers and Marines have gone through in today's two wars is far worse than most guys went through in 'Nam. We didn't have suicide bombers and IEDs (VC booby traps weren't laced with the killing power of today's homemade bombs). We also didn't have repeated deployments. We did one one-year tour and we were on a Freedom Bird back to The World.

Some troops today have been "in the suck" four or five times, on tours of up to 15 months. Sure, it's a volunteer army. But their sacrifices far outweigh any bennies that may have been promised by a recruiter.

Merced County Veteran Services Officer Darren Hughes is an effective advocate for veterans, so we're lucky there. We're not so lucky in the fact that the most big-ticket services are based in Fresno. "They don't have therapists in Merced, period," says Eli PaintedCrow, who served in the Army 22 years. "The VA has never bothered to look for qualified therapists to work in Merced. They also don't provide physical therapy, which I'm in need of."

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimates that 50 percent of returning troops are eligible to get some level of disability payment, with 600,000 treated so far in veterans' medical facilities. He and colleague Linda Bilmes calculate that future disability payments and health-care costs will total $600 billion to $900 billion.

That's the reason why we, as voters and citizens, need to make sure that the Feinsteins and Boxers and Denhams and Cardozas and Cannellas and Galgianis in our district make the right calls in supporting bills that help vets. And not just officer vets. There are moves afoot to change the military retirement system so that the highest-ranking get the biggest share of appropriations. The enlisted troops, as usual, would be left standing in line.

And it's up to the private sector -- small businesses mainly -- to go out of their way to hire vets. Returnees have already gotten Uncle Sam's money. Now they need a civilian job where they can show their leadership and skill sets, which go way beyond plotting ambushes.

Quang Pham served as a U.S. Marine aviator during the Persian Gulf War and Somalia. He also survived 10 years as a kid in Saigon till his dad, a South Vietnamese Air Force officer, put him and his mom and sisters on a plane as refugees in 1975. Lt. Col. Pham then spent 12 years in re-education camps before his family saw him again.

Quang watched how the U.S. left its allies behind after a long stale war -- like the two we're in now. His take on the 10th anniversary of 9-11:

"If the new enlistees paid any attention to how our country treats its disabled returning veterans, we'd be in trouble. Recruiting would dwindle, and a draft would need to be reinstated."

Semper Fi.

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