Nov 11, 2008
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
© 2023 The Nation
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