Will the newest addition to city streets be a guy sitting in front of a Starbucks with a cup and a cardboard sign that says IRAQ WAR VET?
By Anna Quindlen
Aug. 8, 2005 issue – For my money one of the finest war movies ever made was the 1946 Oscar winner “The Best Years of Our Lives.” There isn’t a battlefield in it. Instead it’s a story that begins as three soldiers head back to their hometown. There they fight against disenchantment, dislocation and the pervasive feeling among their families and friends that they should just forget about the horrors they’ve witnessed and get on with their lives. One of the most powerful shots is of a long row of fighter planes, stripped of their propellers and sitting in an empty field. Overnight they’d become scrap metal.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq says we may be looking at a substantial pullout by next spring. As Al and Fred and Homer did on screen almost 60 years ago, American troops will be coming home, trying to find their footing, remembering what they’d prefer to forget. Will the United States government serve as well as they have, or will the newest addition to city streets be a guy sitting cross-legged in front of a Starbucks with a cup and a cardboard sign that says IRAQ WAR VET?
More than a million men and women have served in war zones since the terrorist attacks of September 11. The percentage of those wounded on the battlefield who have survived is the highest in the history of combat, in part because of advances in body armor, in part because of sophisticated on-site medical facilities. The result is that there will be a group of Iraq-war vets with catastrophic injuries: multiple amputations, head trauma, horrendous burns. They may need medical intervention for the rest of their lives. Yet already there has been troubling testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that severely injured soldiers are being pressured to sign discharge papers before they’ve received adequate care.
That’s not even counting those who come home with serious mental-health issues. Last week the Army’s surgeon general reported that three to four months after their return 30 percent of soldiers had problems ranging from depression to full-blown posttraumatic stress disorder. But some veterans have told local papers that VA hospitals are overwhelmed and that they’re waiting months for treatment. The VA itself estimates that nearly 200,000 veterans of various American wars are homeless on any given night, many as a result of substance abuse.
We also know from experience that there may be health problems still to come. Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam, was first discounted as a health risk, although it is now linked to an increased incidence of diabetes and various cancers. Gulf-war veterans have their own syndrome, although its existence too was initially denied; it includes chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.
Government officials need to resist the knee-jerk impulse to mimic the tobacco industry and begin another dance of denial if and when Iraq-war syndrome begins to emerge.
American business and industry also have to hold up their end of the compact. Reservists, who have played a more central role in this conflict than in any since World War II and who are not eligible for some benefits accorded enlisted soldiers, must have their livelihoods back. Soldiers leaving the service, many of whom joined in the first place for the job training, must be employed. And those who re-enlist or who have been disabled should be able to live with dignity. The fact that military wages are so paltry that some soldiers and survivors qualify for food stamps is insupportable.
Average American citizens have learned from past wars. Here are two mistakes we won’t make this time around: we won’t forget, and we won’t blame the troops for political foul-ups. The gulf war disappeared almost instantaneously from our historical memory, along with its veterans. Those returning from Vietnam were treated by some fellow citizens with a disdain that should have been reserved for the officials who created that quagmire. American support for the war in Iraq has eroded by inches, and in the wake of the attacks in Madrid and now in London, the idea that it was a war on terror—and that we’re winning—seems more than slightly suspect. None of that should dampen the resolve to take care of the good men and women who took care of business there.
In the lickety-split fashion of our times, there’s already a TV drama about the Iraq war called “Over There.” It aired just as an independent panel reported that planning for postwar Iraq was inadequate. So is planning for postwar America, over here. Two months ago the secretary of the VA went to a House committee, hat in hand, because the agency had so grossly underestimated the number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan needing medical services that he found himself $1 billion short of necessary funding.
Never mind the yellow-ribbon magnets; patriotism is an empty, dumb show if it doesn’t include adequate health care, a living wage and decent shelter for people who laid down their lives. The old movie tells the story: it’s a difficult segue from battlefield to home front. In 60 years we must have figured out some ways to make it easier.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.