Commentary: We must help returning troops forge a future

The Kansas City StarJanuary 15, 2012 

Anne Pritchett hangs out where good people gather to try to shape America into the better country that it has always promised to be.

The end of the war in Iraq and the return home of U.S. troops in December led me to find a safety pin she had given me at a 2006 peace rally near the Plaza. Such keepsakes symbolize what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve loved in his lifelong civil rights efforts for peace, nonviolence and love. It’s what we’ll celebrate in honor of the Jan. 16 holiday for King’s birth.

Such pins, which Pritchett handed out at the peace rally, had great meaning because pierced through the part that opens were plastic beads with the numbers 2-3-0-0 in yellow, pink, blue and purple.

Some corrosion on the brass pin froze the numbers in place like row after row of tombstones at military gravesites. The 2,300 represented the number of U.S. troops who had died in Iraq in what seemed like an endless war.

In March, we had finished the ninth year of the war President George W. Bush started to take out weapons of mass destruction, which Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein never had. Bush is out of office after two terms and Hussein is long dead after he was found in a hole in the ground, tried and executed.

The terrible thing that sticks in my mind because of Pritchett’s pin is the number of U.S. troops killed nearly doubled, climbing close to 4,500 before President Barack Obama brought the soldiers and the U.S. war machinery home before 2011 ended.

More than 30,000 U.S. troops suffered injuries and tens of thousands more returned home since the war started in March 2003 with severe brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s always the young men and women filled with hope who fight the terrible wars that old men start. Pritchett’s safety pin is reminiscent of the cloth diaper days signifying the dreams of young families for their babies.

They were the newborns in whom parents and a village of people had great hopes and dreams for the future the children would carve out for themselves. It made sense that Pritchett would give out pins.

Back then she was a teacher at McCoy Elementary School, and she was incredibly proud of her work. Once one of the best schools in the Kansas City district, it closed in a cost-cutting transition in 2010. I would find Pritchett in McCoy giving special attention to lovely children, reading books to them while seated comfortably on the floor.

It’s what more of us should do in caring for all of our children of beautiful colors. Pritchett was relocated to another school in the district and has continued to do the hard work to educate the children even though adults continue to squabble over the bones of what’s left of Kansas City Public Schools.

When we talked about the pin symbolizing the dead U.S. troops, she was offering ideas at a meeting on what would be the best way to boost scholastic achievement. Preparing our children for war in an ongoing poverty draft is not the answer.

Like King, more people should be concerned for all kids’ well-being. They also should care about forging a future for returning soldiers.

Over the years I’ve encountered Iraqi war veterans at peace rallies and at a midtown center for people with mental illness.

One woman came in from the cold with others who lived under bridges around the Plaza. She showed me her war wounds and told of sexual assaults she’d endured and of living on the street. It was the only place that welcomed her and not with empty gestures.

We have to do a better job for our returning veterans in this new year than we did shoveling our children into wars that didn’t have to be fought. The government, which enticed them to enlist, now must make them whole physically and mentally so they can function in society.

That job can’t continue to be offloaded onto communities and families to care for the people whom the military broke. The returning soldiers also can’t be left unemployed at a double-digit rate because the so-called job creators, who went shopping as the wars were fought, won’t hire returning vets.

The responsibility rests with all of us to pin these young people back together. The future we create for them also is our own.

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