Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dissing Crippled Veterans Cripples Valor

War is hell.

Apparently, so is coming home.

As the United States accelerates the return of our military veterans from our war theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan, we're beginning to learn the true cost of these failed excursions into political fantasy and hawkish recklessness.  Because aside from the costs associated with equipping our military with planes, ships, trucks, tanks, Humvees, helmets, goggles, guns, boots, and all sorts of other war materiel, we're seeing the cost in terms of damage done to human beings themselves.

Only our government doesn't want to pay those costs.  And so far, ambivalence from we the people is tolerating this travesty.  Even though these veterans have survived real warfare.

By now, we're familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder, and many of us have a hazy understanding of what it must be like for our men and women in uniform to return from utterly bizarre battlefields in the Middle East to our post-modern, materialistic, coddled world of cars that don't explode, streets that aren't mined, and neighborhoods without snipers behind every house.  OK, except maybe the veterans returning to Detroit and Miami, who don't have much readjusting to do at all!

But returning veterans are often a stubborn lot.  That stubbornness is partly why they joined the military to begin with.  And why they stuck it out.  They thought they could make a difference in our world.  They thought they were serving their country.  They assumed the military would be a job that could provide them with life skills they could use later on in the private sector.

Many of them don't want to believe they've suffered brain injuries.  Many of them don't seem to understand that even if they look OK outwardly, things may be seriously messed-up inside.  They seem uncomfortable with admitting that even though they're returning home with all of their arms, legs, hands, and fingers, their brains have been walloped in these wars in unprecedented ways.  In most of our previous wars, soldiers were killed far more efficiently because they lacked today's sophisticated armor and front-line medical technologies.  In some ways, perhaps the old days served soldiers better, in that the mortal injuries they received on the battlefield spared them from the bureaucratic nightmare that would await them at home.

And if they have received physical scars as well, so much the worse for them.

These days, soldiers needing medical attention after their discharge from the service are facing an ever more complex and dangerous enemy, one that is disgracefully as effective as some of the insurgents and other enemies they faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Only this time, it's their own government, here on American soil.  Multiple stories in the media have described the absurd delays veterans are encountering as they file for disability services and payments.  And many of us civilians assume that our government is scrambling to take care of everybody in the same manner in which we would expect to be treated by our private healthcare providers.

Of course, some Americans say that injuries - whether to the brain or body - are the price soldiers pay for willingly joining an all-volunteer military.  Recruits should understand that there are no guarantees, that war really is hell, and that the American taxpayer can't be expected to fix every problem you might encounter if you're injured in battle.  It's all about risk, they say; you're risking your health and your life, so why do you come home and complain that our government isn't getting you back to your pre-war condition?

Veterans have been through this before, unfortunately.  Remember the Vietnam War?  And the fight its veterans had to wage to get our government to admit they poisoned our own soldiers with Agent Orange?  Thirty years ago, that fight was waged in relative secrecy, compared with the ubiquitousness of today's social media, and a press corps far less willing to be cowed by terse rebuttals from the Pentagon and the White House.

Indeed, recent problems with the military's former flagship hospital, Walter Reed, were widely reported, as have stories about military families forced to hold fundraisers to purchase bullet-proof vests for their soldiers serving overseas.  Public outcry helped convince the Pentagon that new vehicles with armor plating to deflect IEDs were needed in Iraq.  But our government's refusal to adequately respond to and budget for post-war costs is becoming the newest military scandal.

Literally adding insult to injury, in an article today on Bloomberg.com exploring the plight of several families struggling with obtaining benefits from the Veterans Administration, a commenter posting their feedback to the story basically wrote it off as imbalanced.  Others have said it before, and it seems to be the unwritten code of the Pentagon:  these soldiers should have known what they were getting into.  Many of them were greedy for the academic scholarships and other benefits available through the military.  America can't pander to all of the veterans who suffer wounds in defense of our country.  Life isn't fair.  Suck it up and move on.

Granted, not everyone who joins the military does so with a full understanding of what modern warfare is like.  Not everybody who joins the military has a realistic appreciation of how the things they experience in battle are going to change their worldview, their health, their finances, and their families.  It's also no secret that the military is full of people lacking the marketable skills that would otherwise provide them better and safer employment alternatives other than the military.  And no, nobody serving in the United States military has been conscripted.  Sure, military service may have been their best option, but it's not anybody's only option.

So does that mean that we as a country should turn our backs on them when they come home with physical and mental disorders?  Doesn't a person's willingness to go and risk dying for their country count for anything?  Are soldiers who die from their wounds that much less of a bother?  Nobody thinks our armed forces are staffed with saints and altruistic martyrs, but how many of us benefit from the fact that because they've gone, we don't have to?

Perhaps what's so disturbing about how we're treating these forgotten veterans is that their plight echoes what's bad about America.  We do many things well, but cleaning up after ourselves isn't necessarily one of them.  We take a lot of things for granted, and when we're done using something, we have a bad habit of simply moving on, looking for something else to exploit.  And then we complain and bicker when somebody else has to call us on the carpet for doing so.

In this case, for Bloomberg.com to be pointing out the growing financial crises being experienced by so many of America's veterans speaks volumes about how disconcerting this situation is becoming.  For one thing, America's economy does not benefit when anybody is forced to declare bankruptcy, especially when their reasons for doing so stem from their military service.  And for another thing, American society does not benefit when systemic failures in our government's response to such situations threatens to cause people considering military service to second-guess the idea.  Who wants to risk their lives for a country that is apparently so ungrateful?

Couldn't this even imperil national security in the future, if enough prospective soldiers decide that their own government might not support them if they return home alive - but injured?  Even those ungrateful clods who shrug their shoulders at the medical problems our veterans are facing should realize that the cost of properly addressing these injuries and treating our veterans with dignity today can pay bigger dividends tomorrow.  After all, threats to our national security aren't going to go away anytime soon.  Besides, shouldn't we be civilized enough to treat our veterans respectfully simply because it's the moral thing to do?

This coming Monday is Memorial Day, and most Americans will barely stop to honor the memory of the millions of servicemembers who've died for the honor of our country.  In a way, maybe that's some sort of affirmation of the success our military has had in securing our freedoms for our United States.  But don't we still owe more than nonchalance to our veterans?  Isn't caring for our sick part of what defines us?

Hopefully we can stem such institutionalized disrespect for our retired warriors before military servicemembers literally become a dying breed.
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