OPINION – The flags have all been put away, the backyard grill has cooled, and we’re done with Memorial Day for another year.
Or, are we?
As we approached the unofficial beginning of summer, we saw one particular statistic get a lot of mileage, the number 22, which, as many noted, is the number of veterans that commit suicide on a daily basis in the United States.
The context of that number is rarely given. Most of those vets are about 60 years old, although the numbers among veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 have spiked.
That does not mean, however, that we don’t have a problem, because whether they are 18 or 60, they are victims of a system that has let them down.
Since the Vietnam War, military veterans have been on the losing end as the government persistently chipped away at their benefits and services.
There has been savage neglect to these vets from this particular era because of the length of time modern-day conflicts stretch over and the multiple overseas deployments many in the military have had to endure.
And, while I cannot quite bring myself to call for a return of the military draft, I can rationalize that if, indeed, there was a draft today, the messy business in Iraq and Afghanistan would have ended long ago. The American people would just not tolerate sending their sons and daughters into harm’s way in a war that never ends. The political pressure would have been great enough to end the nonsense and bring the troops home. We did it in Vietnam, we would have done it in the Middle East.
The argument can be made that since military service these days is voluntary rather than by conscription, those enlisting know exactly what they are doing when they sign on and that they could be sent off to war. Even so, I heard a couple guys grumble that they only enlisted to help pay off their college debt.
Whatever the case, they served in an ugly, dirty war, period. Put your politics aside, put your moral judgments aside and deal with the fact that it was a hairy situation and that a lot of those young men and women came back from Iraq and Afghanistan with wounds that were not visible.
But, we haven’t done much to help them.
We’ve seen scandal upon scandal mount regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs and shabby conditions at several military hospitals – including the vaunted Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
And, we’ve seen many veterans withdraw, dangerously so, from the warm and friendly personalities they possessed before they were fired upon.
Now, I’m not one of those who believes that the only people deserving of public office are military veterans. However, I do believe that we have too many chicken hawks in politics and the media who never put on the uniform and do not understand the needs, let alone the experiences, of those who have served in combat or times of war on friendly shores, where the pressures and dangers are also present, who are all too willing to send young men and women marching off to war.
These faux patriots have never fired a weapon in anger, never faced an enemy whose intent was to take their life, never dealt with the uncertainty of war. They just keep sending fodder to the front lines, giving lip service about their pride in the American service person, and riding in parades, without making the sacrifices or removing themselves from the safety and comfort of their easy chairs.
I admit, I never wore the uniform, and would have probably been a lousy soldier or sailor, but I have talked to vets and listened to their stories to try to understand their experiences.
I have come to see that there is no level playing field here, that once these young men and women come home, we don’t do a lot to make their transition from military life to civilian life work.
We, rightfully, honor those who lost their lives while in service to the nation on Memorial Day. We have parades, we decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers, sailors, and airmen, we hear speeches.
But, what about those who come home, only to live in the shadows of a society that doesn’t know what to do with them?
We have become quite good at inventing efficient means of disposing of human lives. Our military has, at its fingertips, great and grand weapons.
What, however, do we have to help heal those whose wounds do not show until it is too late?
For a number of reasons, we do not take mental illness seriously in the United States, and that is tragic, as we have seen.
It’s not something you can “tough out,” yet we expect those who suffer from it to do just that.
We also owe a debt to those who have served honorably in the military, doing the dirty work that others cannot or will not do.
Let’s please not allow politics to dissuade us on this issue and work to get help for those who return physically intact but mentally in disarray.
Their pain is no less than those who suffered physical wounds.
You can call it patriotic if you wish.
You can call it compassionate.
The bottom line is it is the right thing to do.
It’s time that the United States makes a priority of doing the right thing, and that means more than parades and speeches from politicians who know nothing of sacrifice, heroism, or compassion, yet try to ride the coattails of those who left a piece of their soul on some godforsaken battlefield.
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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