When citizens are willing to serve, risking their lives for America, our government has a corresponding moral obligation to ensurebefore, during and after deploymentthat such willingness is not squandered. First, the government ought to ensure that deployment is absolutely necessary. The conflict must be worthy of the sacrifices being asked. Decisions that require the greatest sacrifice from the citizens must be subjected to full congressional and public debate. Second, when our nation deploys troops, the government must provide the capacity, the strategy, the numbers, the equipment and any other support our troops require. Today it is clear that our service members are not getting the support they deserve. Third, when service members pay a personal price in serving our country, the government must ensure that when they return, health, rehabilitative and readjustment programs can provide adequately for their specific needs. Everyone in America should realize that these criteria are not being met today.
The third part of the social contract deserves greater attention and elaboration. The system currently in place to deal with the needs of returning service members and veterans needs repair. Thirty-eight years ago, while I was serving in Vietnam, an enemy bullet ripped through my chest as I led an assault against a hill, just below the demilitarized zone, defended by North Vietnamese regular forces. It is a miracle that I survived, albeit as a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. The military medical evacuation was the best in the world. I was flown out to the hospital ship, the U.S.S. Repose, and given immediate life-saving surgery. The care was spectacular.
When I entered long-term rehabilitation, however, things went downhill fast. My first day in the New York City veterans’ hospital, where I was to stay as a patient for a year, was the first time I cried since being wounded. I was overwhelmed with despair at the circumstances in which I found myself. Life magazine depicted my ward as a medical slum. When my government asked me to serve, I did. I paid an immense personal price, and my country subsequently turned its back on me. I had been betrayed. As the war began to wind down and the people became aware that the government had lied about the necessity and purposefulness of the war, I became very angry. The betrayal I felt was debilitating.
For more than 35 years now, I have fought for service member and veterans benefits. I used to believe that the changes enacted as a result of our struggles would lead to better care for future generations. It was my hope that no service member or veteran would ever again feel a similar sense of betrayal by our country. But I was wrong.
Today’s service members and veterans are being forced to fight the same battles we fought. It is shameful. How is it possible that America has not learned from its mistakes? How is it possible that as a nation we collectively ignore the challenges of service members until the suffering and neglect become horrifying?
The 1.5 million service members and veterans who have served our country in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are desperate for programs that address their specific needs. It is important to understand that each new war brings with it a new set of challenges for returning service members. It is also important to realize that the demographics of today’s military differ dramatically from those of any previous military force this country has sent to war. The American Psycho-logical Association re-cently released a report, titled The Psychological Needs of U.S. Military Service Members and Their Families, which found that no one has done the basic research to understand the unique needs of today’s military.
The appalling conditions revealed at Walter Reed were not simply the consequence of poor maintenance or budgetary neglect. Rather, the conditions represent a basic failure by the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration to respond to the new set of challenges faced by those who have returned from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was not until 10 years after the height of the war in Vietnam that post-traumatic stress disorder was recognized as a medical condition and that Vet Centers were created to help Vietnam veterans cope with the mental health and other readjustment challenges created by their military service. It took 15 years to complete a study of the Vietnam generation. During that time, thousands upon thousands of lives were ruined by a system that failed to recognize and respond to urgent service-connected challenges. It ought not happen again. Yet by many indications, it appears to be recurring. If such recovery programs are not in place, it matters little whether the Department of Defense and the V.A. have the best doctors, equipment, recordkeeping and medicine money can buy.
A Family War
Today’s soldiers are older than those who served in Vietnam. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the average age of those deployed for combat is 27, as compared with 19 for combat soldiers in Vietnam, virtually all of whom were single men. Iraq/Afghanistan, by contrast, is a family war; 60 percent of those deployed have family responsibilities, and 47 percent of those who have died have left families behind. Those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan include 160,000 women, 16,000 of whom (1 in 10) are single mothers.
According to The New York Times, A 2003 report financed by the Department of Defense revealed that nearly one-third of a nationwide sample of female veterans seeking health care through the V.A. said they experienced rape or attempted rape during their service. Of that group, 37 percent said they were raped multiple times, and 14 percent reported they were gang-raped. Despite these statistics, the V.A. currently has only two in-patient programs for women with service-connected P.T.S.D.
The average age of members of the Guard and Reserve is even higher, at 33. The Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration are not meeting their recruitment goals. They must rectify a striking disparity: members of the National Guard and the Reserve are half as likely to file a V.A. claim as members of the active component, and Guard and Reserve members are twice as likely to have their claims rejected. This is unacceptable. Such staggering examples of neglect reveal a system that is inadequate to the needs of our newest generation of warriors.
A Country Disengaged
It is important to understand that our broken social contract is symptomatic of a country disengaged from its own wars. Fewer than half of 1 percent of our population is shouldering the burden (and taking on the life-and-death risk) of this long war. With an all-volunteer military, most of the country can remain oblivious to its horrors. This must change. We must begin to distribute the sacrifice equitably, not by sharing the burden of combat but through active political engagement. The American public can create a strong social contract. We can pressure our government to uphold its end of the bargain, knowing that our service members need our action. Collectively we can reverse the betrayal felt by this generation. Whether we like it or not, these are our wars, and we must begin to take ownership of their causes, conduct and consequences. What does Americaits government and its citizensowe to those who serve? We owe them a social contract worthy of their sacrifice.