The War in Iraq has disappeared from the headlines. The ongoing economic crisis has Americans looking inward, wondering if they can keep their homes and their jobs, with little interest in death and destruction half a world away. According to the Pew Research Center, media coverage of the war has plummeted from an average of 15 percent of stories in July 2007, to 3 percent this February, to just 2 percent of stories during the last week of October.
The war also disappeared as an issue in the presidential campaign. Both Barack Obama and John McCain barely mentioned the war in Iraq in their final debate. In his historic victory speech, Obama said "Iraq" only once. Some say the election results show Americans demanding a "change," and in many ways they do. But they also show a collective desire to forget.
Most Americans want to put the war behind them, but this feeling is based not on a coherent critique but on a kind of collective exhaustion. In many ways, we as a country find ourselves in a mood like the one towards the end of the Vietnam War: we are tired and simply want to move on and forget the conflict ever happened.
Yet this feeling can come at a great cost, because it is this same dynamic that led to the betrayal of more than three million Vietnam veterans.
"When I go through airports I see soldiers just sitting up against a wall...by themselves," says therapist and Vietnam veteran Shad Meshad, who heads up the National Veterans Foundation. "No one goes up to them; that positive energy toward them has faded. No one is spitting or shouting, but they're still left with the fact that they're responsible for what they did or didn't do, and they're supposed to think about that alone."
Given the experience of Vietnam vets, Meshad believes that the American people ignore their veterans at their own peril. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, eighteen veterans commit suicide every day and 200,000 sleep homeless on the streets on any given night. By 1986, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Survey reported that almost half of all male Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder had been arrested or jailed at least once--34.2 percent had been jailed more than once, and 11.5 percent had been convicted of a felony.
"We're going to repeat that same thing, I can sense it," Meshad says, "if we don't take action and Congress doesn't create services to help these folks over the next ten or fifteen years."
Indeed, there are already many signs that history is repeating itself. Consider the implications of an April 2008 survey by the Rand Corporation; it found that a majority of the 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder and of the 320,000 with traumatic brain injury are not receiving help from the Pentagon and VA medical systems. In its study, Rand noted that the federal government fails to care for war veterans at its own peril--noting PTSD and TBI "can have far-reaching and damaging consequences."
"Individuals afflicted with these conditions face higher risks for other psychological problems and for attempting suicide. They have higher rates of unhealthy behaviors--such as smoking, overeating, and unsafe sex--and higher rates of physical health problems and mortality. Individuals with these conditions also tend to miss more work or report being less productive," the report said. "These conditions can impair relationships, disrupt marriages, aggravate the difficulties of parenting, and cause problems in children that may extend the consequences of combat trauma across generations."
"These consequences can have a high economic toll," the report continued. "However, most attempts to measure the costs of these conditions focus only on medical costs to the government. Yet, direct costs of treatment are only a fraction of the total costs related to mental health and cognitive conditions. Far higher are the long-term individual and societal costs stemming from lost productivity, reduced quality of life, homelessness, domestic violence, the strain on families, and suicide. Delivering effective care and restoring veterans to full mental health have the potential to reduce these longer-term costs significantly."
There is hope in this story, though.
When Barack Obama takes the oath of office on January 20, America will have a President who has shown an interest in and commitment to caring for America's veterans. As a senator, Obama supported increased funding for the VA and an expanded GI Bill. His campaign platform sounded all the right notes about increasing the number of mental health providers, reforming the government's bureaucratic disability-claims system, and increasing the number of Vet Centers, where returning veterans can find community as they make the difficult transition from war to civilian life.
But taking those steps will require hard work and support from the public that amounts to more than just lip service to "supporting the troops." We must stay engaged on the issue of Iraq and our government's treatment of its veterans and create an atmosphere where a repeat of the tragedy that followed the Vietnam War will not be tolerated. If we don't, Barack Obama may follow our lead and rush quickly past the veteran who's sleeping homeless on the street.