In Support of Our Veterans

18 06 2010

I have just finished reading David Halberstam’s book about the Korean War, The Coldest Winter, and I am feeling very guilty.  Millions of people have gone to war and fought for our country and we – I – haven’t done enough for them.

Americans almost unanimously accepted the need to defend our country in World War II.  Veterans from that war came home as heroes.  Few of them, however, felt comfortable talking about the mental traumas they had experienced.
The Korean War in the 1950s is almost a forgotten war today.  Halberstam said, “Korea became something of a black hole in terms of history.”  After reading Halberstam’s book, I am making an effort to learn more about the Korean War.  I am talking to veterans of Korea, such as civic and business leader Dick Robinson, to learn about their experiences.

Years after the Korean War, many veterans of the Vietnam War came home to scorn and ridicule because of the war’s unpopularity.  Americans my age and younger have all avoided compulsory military service because the draft hasn’t been active.  I don’t think any of us can fully appreciate the anxiety and the responsibility that comes with being drafted.

And now we come to today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Because of improved medical treatment and technology, many who would have died in the past are surviving injuries sustained in war.  Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently spoke at a conference in Denver.  Admiral Mullen said that every soldier who has seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has experienced trauma and every one of them will experience some sort of post traumatic stress.

Some shocking statistics from the Pew Research Center demonstrate that the burden of fighting for our country is falling on a smaller and smaller segment of the population.  When males in the “Silent Generation” (those born before 1945) were ages 18 to 28, 24% of them had veteran status.  When Baby Boomers were that age, 13% of them were veterans.  When members of Generation X were that age, only 6% were veterans.  And, today, those that age are only 2% veterans.

An even more stark way to look at the numbers is veteran status among males today.  For those aged 64 and older today, 53% are veterans.  For those aged 45-63, 20% are veterans.  For those aged 29-44, 8% are veterans.  And for those aged 18-28, 2% are veterans.

The burdens of military service today also fall disproportionately upon disadvantaged groups.  The proportions of African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and low income people in the military are substantially greater than their proportions in the general population.  An appalling report from the Pentagon stated that 30% of all women in the military have suffered sexual abuse.  And, gays and lesbians in the military must still choose between coerced silence and discharge.

In his speech, Admiral Mullen listed a wide variety of needs that returning veterans face.  These include education, training, and good medical care.  They also include assistance in fighting homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse.  These are all services that many foundations, including The Denver Foundation, are already helping to provide.

Another serious concern for our society is the families of veterans.  Admiral Mullen pointed out that a 10-year-old child in 2001 whose parent is in the military might have barely seen that parent in the last 10 years.  That child is now old enough to go to college.  This phenomenon is because both the duration and the number of tours of duty have increased during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Some foundations are already working to help families of veterans as well as the veterans themselves.  The Fisher Foundation has built nearly 50 “Fisher Houses” around the country; these are a home away from home for families of patients receiving medical care at major military and VA medical centers.  The Lewis E. Myers Caregivers Fund at The Denver Foundation provides the spouses, parents, and other unpaid caregivers of wounded military personnel with financial assistance, helping with rent, utilities, mortgage payments, car payments, food, and other immediate needs.

All of us should think about reaching out to our veterans and their families and finding out what their challenges are.  All of us should think about what more we can do to help our veterans and their families.

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