On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, it’s time for some perspective on the path we have traveled. We went into Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction, then to avenge September 11, then to build a foothold of freedom in the Arab world, none of which seemed to materialize. Our military, though the strongest force on earth, was challenged in ways we never thought possible. The front lines disintegrated into an asymmetric war. We realized the shortcomings of “shock and awe” and began pursuing “hearts and minds” instead. But for all the comparisons to the generation at war in Vietnam, today’s veterans have a lot more going in their favor than we may appreciate.
The pendulum has swung far from the post-Vietnam era days when there was a clear inability on society’s part to separate the soldier from the cause. At Mai Lai, LT Calley served as the example upon which people based their judgments of soldiers. In Iraq, the soldiers involved in Abu Ghraib and Haditha were regarded as anomalies who were simply the bad apples who dishonored the good work the rest of the force was doing.
Post-traumatic stress is now regarded and treated as a legitimate medical disease; post-Vietnam, PTSD was merely a weakness of masculine heart that often went untreated, if not ridiculed. Today, it’s not only the military healthcare system which regards post-traumatic stress as a life-changing and serious ailment. In every day American life, even in movies and television, post-traumatic stress is portrayed as a natural additional to the military experience (perhaps a healthy assumption on which to err.)
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The truth is that despite calls to “support our troops,” our veterans today are in a far better place than they ever have been in any time in American history in terms of their healthcare and education benefits. There is a hawk-like manner in which our constituency — regardless of party affiliation — defends military benefits at seemingly all costs. For example, most of our pension and healthcare age targets were set in the 1950s when the life expectancy was significantly lower, as were healthcare costs. Yet to this day, military healthcare premiums haven’t risen since 1995 and a soldier who enlists at age 18 can still receive half his base pay for the rest of his life at age 38, during the prime of his working years.
My point is not necessarily that this is excessive; but simply that we can acknowledge that this country has made significant strides in veteran care where many previous generations of veterans have been forgotten. This certainly doesn’t mean the veteran social contract has been met. But rather, our societal focus must shift to areas that are often unable to be legislated—emotional stability; a sense of ownership in the community; a realization of purpose outside of the service.
Speaking to one of my close mentors, a Vietnam-era veteran and West Point graduate, he concurred that veterans today are in far stronger of a position to get an education and receive their basic needs. But, as he said, “there’s no substitute for a community.”
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What my mentor was implying was that, in a draft Army, no matter how bad things were when the soldier came home, the entire town had felt the sacrifice. The odds of hiring managers and employers being veterans were far higher. When a resume said, “infantry squad leader in Vietnam,” more often than not, the resume didn’t have to travel too far to find someone who knew exactly what that entailed. Having a community support system who had endured Vietnam was the most powerful asset that a veteran could have.
As we continue to live in a country of 320 million defended by about 1.5 million, the traditional veteran rallying points, like American Legion posts and VFW halls are now just social media groups and email lists. The interpersonal sense of common ground which assuages the feeling of loneliness is an intangible, unlegislatable, and priceless commodity for Americans who’ve experienced the pain of war. When neither a soldier’s employer, nor family, neighbor, and their government can provide that sense of togetherness, it falls on our American society to reach out to our veterans — to adapt to the changing battlefield of Veterans Affairs — and offer more than a “thank you for your service,” or a “like” on a Facebook page. But perhaps the greatest treatment of all, a listening ear.
Nearly a half century after we left Vietnam, we can be proud of the tremendous cultural and policy shift that our country has made. But as a new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans now returns home, the greatest gap in a vet’s transition is the personal connection which allows us to feel human again. If you’re reading this article, odds are you are already a part of the solution: a society–not a government—that seeks to care for those on their left and right who have sacrificed the most.