Commentary: It’s time again to count the cost of freedom

McClatchy columnist Joseph L. Galloway. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)
McClatchy columnist Joseph L. Galloway. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT) MCT

Veterans Day has come around again, as it does every fall, arriving with a new crispness in the air, the woods painted in glorious color and the days of a year that seemed new just yesterday now dwindled to a precious few.

If none of those signs had signaled its arrival, the advertising of big sales at the malls would have reminded those without more personal and less commercial ties to military service.

In this year, the last living British veteran of World War I died. The last American combat veteran of The Great War died in 2007 at age 108. The last of the Greatest Generation veterans of World War II, who once numbered some 15 million and changed the face of this nation, are slipping away fast now. The veterans of Korea, the forgotten war, are fading away, too. The ranks of more than 3 million who served in the Vietnam War are thinning out, as well.

Our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are contributing a smaller but steady stream of new veterans joining the ranks. Political and military leaders are analyzing and deciding on a future course in Afghanistan that could lock us into years more of combat and many more new veterans.

Military service today, however, is reserved for the few who volunteer, unlike the days of big wars and conscription or the draft, which filled the ranks with millions of young men.

Today in this nation of 300 million, fewer than 1 percent wear the uniform, and, with their families, bear all the burdens and sacrifice of protecting and defending the rest of us who give little thought to those who pay the price for our freedom.

It isn't right, and it certainly isn't what those bold revolutionaries who ripped a continent out of the hands of a king at the risk of their own lives and property intended for the nation they created.

The least the rest of us can do is show a bit of gratitude and respect for our veterans, old and new, and for those serving under our flag today on foreign fields of battle. They don't start the wars. That's up to the political chicken hawks who so proudly and loudly bang the drums and march the sons and daughters of other, quieter citizens off to bloody battle.

If there were a fair and equitable requirement for national service — if the chicken hawks had some skin in the game — I wonder if they'd vote differently on those resolutions enabling and paying for wars without end. You seldom hear old soldiers prescribing war as a solution for anything.

Today's wars are bringing home hundreds of thousands of new veterans in dire need of jobs, education, medical and mental health care and a warm welcome home to a nation grateful for all that they've so selflessly given.

More than 30 percent of returning combat veterans, many of whom have served two or three or four or more combat tours, are in need of skilled counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others are victims of traumatic brain injury (TBI) from the blasts of the enemy’s powerful homemade mines and bombs. Still others have lost arms and legs.

We owe them not only respect, but also the best medical care this nation can provide, although that's a less popular a vote for the drum-banging warmongers on Capitol Hill than any measure to dole out billions for the latest defense industry boondoggle.

The same Pentagon bean counters who happily rubber-stamp more no-bid contracts for contractors who've been stealing millions or billions for years also concoct plans to raise the fees and co-pays for veterans' health care insurance.

They also pressure military doctors to search for some pre-existing mental health issue so they can deny a PTSD claim and throw a soldier out the door with no health benefits.

Shame on them for doing that. Shame on us for letting them get away with it.

Veterans Day is just around the corner. Think about what that means besides bargain day at the mall. Think about whom we owe big-time. Write or call your Congress critter and offer him early retirement if he or she isn't voting right on these issues.

If you hear a band playing or read about a small ceremony honoring veterans, go there and say thank you to the men and women who have given so much for your rights and freedoms. It will bring a tear to their eyes.