It was clear from the very beginning of the Iraqi adventure that official Washington had no idea what to do with the broken bodies returning from the war. When the first wounded troops began arriving home for medical attention and rehabilitation, some of them were presented with bills for their hospital meals. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, put an end to the practice.
But even if wounded veterans no longer have insults added to their injuries, they remain out of sight and thereforeperhaps intentionallyout of mind. Their homecomings are not like the joyous reunions between soldiers and their families featured in many local news media. For many of the wounded, the return to U.S. soil consists of an ambulance ride from Andrews Air Force Base to a hospital bed in Walter Reed Medical Center.
President Bush and the war’s most vocal supporters seem unwilling to talk about the immediate and long-term needs of a new generation of wounded, some of them so gravely injured that they surely would have died of their wounds in earlier wars. Among the worst casualties are those who have survived horrible burns. If you have the stomach for it, do a Web search using the key words Iraq and wounded U.S. troops. Some anti-war Web sites have posted pictures of terribly burned soldiers, their faces an appalling mass of shriveled, blistered flesh.
Such images are not for the faint of heart. But surely they deserve to be seen now, if only to prepare us for the day when we will be seeing the real-life wounded of Iraq in our communities, churches, schools and workplaces. Medical technology and miracles have saved these soldiers, but saving is not the same as healing. The healing process requires not only the skills of a surgeon, but the caring of a community.
With the White House incapable or unwilling to acknowledge the crisis that awaits our wounded, it would seem incumbent on the Democratic leaders in Congress to remind the country of its obligation to veterans who are trying to rebuild their lives and, especially, to those who cannot. What that means, of course, is ensuring that the Veterans Administration provides medical care second to noneand that means cheerfully and gratefully spending whatever it takes to pay our debt to our wounded troops.
But even before we can begin to care properly for our wounded, we must first acknowledge that they exist and that their numbers may in fact be far larger than the current estimates. The figure of 20,000 wounded includes only the most grievously injured. Even more startling is a recent Pentagon estimate that one in four veterans of the Iraq warmore than 50,000 soldiershas health problems that require medical or mental-health treatment.
In a way, we should not be surprised to learn that so many of our veterans are having trouble once they return to the States, even those who come home with all their limbs intact. We are fighting this war with part-time soldiers, the men and women of the National Guard and Reserves. It takes nothing away from their courage, dedication and sacrifice to say that they may not be as psychologically prepared for the horror of combat as their comrades in the regular services. They have seen things that will haunt their nights for years to come.
As the war becomes more unpopular at home, it becomes all the more important that somebody speaks up for the wounded. As reminders of a faltering cause, the public might turn against themnot aggressively perhaps, but voters might choose to look the other way if veterans’ benefits are cut, or if their health care deteriorates, or if the government fails to help veterans lead productive lives despite their wounds.
As the presidential campaign of 2008 takes shape, we cannot confine our debate about the war in Iraq and the wider war on terror to gains and losses on the battlefield. We must come to terms with the care and future of the men and women who will soon be in our midst, their bodies or minds shattered by the dreadful experience of war.
It is not enough to offer them tributes on Veterans Day or to glorify their service with high-minded rhetoric. We owe them a good deal more than that. We owe them health care and follow-up treatment, we owe them compassion, and we owe them a place in society.
But first, we have to acknowledge their existence. That would be a start.