Who Cares?

Statue, Three Servicemen, Vietnam Veterans Mem...
Statue, Three Servicemen, Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Years ago, while living in Detroit, I was visiting some friends. We were playing a board game and laughing and eating. Out of nowhere, a car backfired, and the husband of my friend was suddenly under the table, his eyes wide, breathing heavily. He had broken out into a sweat and was clearly terrified.

He was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (although it hadn’t been diagnosed at that time.) His wife said that he hadn’t been the same since he returned from Vietnam. He was nervous and edgy; loud noises terrified him, he suffered from nightmares, and just wasn’t the same. To add insult to injury, she said that she couldn’t get the VA to admit that he had anything wrong with him, so she wasn’t able to get him the medical and psychiatric help he needed.  I moved from Detroit soon after and lost contact with my friend; I often wonder how her husband is doing.

Fast forward thirty, forty years and it seems that veterans are not having all that much better luck in getting treated well or in being able to get necessary medical and/or psychiatric help once they get home from war, if what I read and have listened to is correct.

According to an article which appeared in The New York Times, there is what is called a “crushing inventory of claims for disability, pension and educational benefits” for returning vets. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/us/veterans-wait-for-us-aid-amid-growing-backlog-of-claims.html?pagewanted=all) Far too many homeless people these days are veterans (http://www.newdirectionsinc.org/press_ap.html), many cannot get mortgages, some lose their homes while they are deployed, and reportedly the rate of suicide for veterans continues to rise.

I think about this sad reality as we celebrate this Veterans Day. Clearly, young men and women have sacrificed their lives for the United States.  I am not so sure what the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or, earlier, Vietnam, have been about, but regardless of my confusion, and the confusion of many in our country, young people went and fought.  World Wars I and II vets, wars which seem a little more focused in purpose, produced a slew of veterans as well…and from what I have read, they were not treated much better than present-day vets.  And if white vets have been treated poorly, it goes without saying that vets who are people of color have suffered even more.

It leads me to ask, “America, where is your conscience? How can our government treat vets so poorly?

People who go to war do not come back the same as they were. It would seem that coming back “the same” is impossible. If one gets into a habit of killing other human beings, if one sees ones friends blown away, sometimes in front of them, if one sees horrible suffering day after day, suffers egregiously on battlefields, and really can’t talk to anyone about what the stupid war is doing to his or her mind,  it cannot be expected that he or she would be the same.

And yet, they are treated as being the same. I have seen vets hailed and applauded as they have gotten on flights, on the last leg of their flight going home…or cheered as they have gone off to war. We have somehow, for some reason, romanticized war…and yet, there is nothing romantic about it. After the applause at an airport, after or in spite of the annual Veteran’s Day parades,  the sad reality of “being home” sets in, with nothing the same, and, presumably, not many outlets for help.

These young men and women, too many of them, walk around in torment, unable to function normally. Too many end up homeless; too many commit suicide.

One vet’s experience I read broke my heart.  This young man returned home from war. He was a mess. He would wait for his wife to go to work and “pull the blinds and take out the booze.” He would toy with his gun, sometimes putting it in his mouth, courting suicide. Finally, his behavior became too much for his family. He lost his wife and family, and ended up homeless. (http://www.newdirectionsinc.org/press_ap.html) Sadly that scenario is all too common.

Who cares about the veterans? I mean, in the government, who really cares? Why is there such a backlog of claims for veterans seeking help?  It seems wrong; the country is eager to use these men and women to “fight for America” and when their tours are up, America has little to no time for them. It is kind of reminiscent of how football franchises uses young men to win games for them to help make them rich, but when their playing days are over, the franchise has difficulty getting them help, especially medical help, they need. Many a football star lives a rough life, fraught with suffering, after their playing days are over.

Understanding how difficult it is for vets to get treated with dignity once they get home, the parades bother me anymore. Who cares about these vets once they get home? What is the celebration about? How can we celebrate wars fought if we cannot and do not really honor and take care of the human beings who fought in them?

A candid observation …

How We Romanticize War!

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Naga...
Image via Wikipedia

I listen to and read a lot of history; it is fascinating to me, but it also helps me see the world with a little clearer lens.

And one of the things I am seeing more clearly is the horror of war. Veterans come home with memories burned into their souls, as one veteran said, and they never go away.

What shook me was a documentary on the Civil War I was watching.  Yes, we know that there was a bad war and people died, but the depth of the horror, and the breadth, eludes us. When I heard the narrator describe how it was bad for people in the Civil War to be killed, but even worse for them to be taken to a hospital, I shuddered.

There was no sterile technique. There was no anesthesia, or if there was, it was highly ineffective. Doctors didn’t wash their hands between taking care of different patients. Men were as likely to die from painful infection as they were from actually being shot.

Bodies of dead soldiers were left in the fields in the Civil War; even in the World Wars, dead bodies and horses often lay in fields, rotting in the sun. In World War I, I read that soldiers often stood for days in the trenches in water, so long that their skin began to come off their feet. In World War II, men often wore shoes that did not fit. In the Civil War, African-American soldiers often had no shoes at all.

The more I read about war, the more I shudder. We so romanticize it. What did Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like after the atomic bombs were dropped? A witness who was there said that the people were screaming, little children wailing, saying, “It’s hot! It’s hot!” Some of the people were so badly burned that this witness, a reporter and photographer, said he could not tell who was male and who was female. One account I read contained this description:

“A huge fireball formed in the sky. Directly beneath it is Matsuyama township. Together with the flash came the heat rays and blast, which instantly destroyed everything on earth, and those in the area fell unconscious and were crushed to death. Then they were blown up in the air and hurled back to the ground. The roaring flames burned those caught under the structures who were crying or groaning for help. When the fire burnt itself out, there appeared a completely changed, vast, colorless world that made you think it was the end of life on earth. In a heap of ashes lay the debris of the disaster and charred trees, presenting a gruesome scene. The whole city became extinct. Citizens who were in Matsuyama township, the hypocenter, were all killed instantly, excepting a child who was in an air-raid shelter.”  (http://www.gensuikin.org/english/photo.html)

We are quick to talk about the “bravery” of the men and women who fight in these wars, but we at home really have no idea.  We hear wonderful, patriotic music; we see men and women in uniform and say we are proud of them…but what they have seen, we cannot even begin to imagine. It is easier to see a returning soldier hug and kiss his girlfriend than it is to take the time to read about and study what war does.

As war rages in Syria and in other places in the world, I shudder. I shudder to think that there are people, in quest of power, who want a war; they think, I suppose, that war is a sign of strength, but all it is is an exercise in human cruelty. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich criticized President Barack Obama because he apologized for the fact that Korans were burned in Afghanistan. Better an apology, a sign of respect for other people, than an arrogance which only feeds those hungry for war. The leaders of Pakistan and Iran seem to be hungry for war. It’s a scary thought.

The more I read, the more I want and need to read. It makes me wonder what this nation, this world, would be like if there had never been wars. It would seem that, given the horror of war, we in this country and in the world have a lot of men and women who are mentally ill, stressed beyond repair from the ravages of war and the horror they have seen. Post-traumatic stress syndrome might be causing post-war problems in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. We don’t come close to honoring and taking care of these men and women, our veterans, who have seen what no human eyes ought to see.

That cannot be a good thing. War is not something to be romanticized. War is to be hated and avoided.

A candid observation …