Our debt to war veterans must be paid | AspenTimes.com

Our debt to war veterans must be paid

John Colson

War is Hell, they say, but coming back from a war suffering from wounds and mental trauma only adds to the hellish nature of it all.And to have your country neglect the treatment of those afflictions makes things even worse.I don’t say this from personal experience, mind you. I have not fought in any of the United States’ foreign wars, though I was a foot soldier in the armies of the streets protesting against the war in Vietnam.But one need not have gone to war to know that being there is enough to send a soldier off the deep end, nor to know that returning home to an uncaring government is an additional burden. You can read all about it, and recently we’ve been reading a lot.The Washington Post and Newsweek magazine both have published stories recently giving details and putting names and faces on the story of our neglect of the veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq in bad shape, and not getting the help and care they’ve been promised.Vets are waiting months, some a year and more, before getting disability payments, money they need if they are ever to reintegrate into a society that put them in harm’s way in the first place. And an unacceptable number are not getting the timely medical or mental health care they need and deserve.According to published accounts, there are already more than 250,000 vets of just these two wars seeking help from the U.S. Veterans Administration, and some estimates say the ultimate cost of treating the casualties of these two conflicts will top a half a trillion dollars. Predictably, the government itself says the numbers will not be that high, a kind of denial that is typical of the Bush administration and others before.Remember the bureaucratic battles fought between returning Vietnam War vets over their claims that our own military had poisoned them with Agent Orange, the defoliant that was a known carcinogen? It took decades for the government to admit any responsibility for the mess, and even now there are reports of vets from that era who never received the care they required.This is a disgrace. Regardless of one’s political feelings about a war, the one indisputable, naked fact that bubbles beneath the surface of all debates over war is this: We sent our boys and girls off to execute our foreign policy, and they deserve our support when they come back maimed, deranged and scared.My dad fought in World War II, and came back to a relatively grateful nation that sent him to college and promised to help him get through his twilight years, thanks in large part to his decision to serve in the U.S. Army Reserves for decades after the fighting in Europe was finished.Now that he is old and incapable of caring for himself, and too disabled for me to care for him on my own, he lives in a veterans nursing home. I visit him every week, and it’s not a pretty picture. Old men and women live out their lives in confusion and fear, some of them frequently calling out for long-dead loved ones or simply screaming at the darkness that engulfs them.The staff at the facility does its best, but it is underfunded and there aren’t quite enough of them to give truly individual care. Still, he has a roof over his head, eats well enough and doesn’t have to worry about living out of a shopping cart. For that I am grateful.But he was not one of those who came back with pieces missing, either from his body or his mind. He was not one of those left to linger at the edges of a red-tape jungle, wondering if neglect would kill him after all.That is the tale being told about the vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is a tale we cannot simply ignore or sanctimoniously dismiss as a soldier’s fate for having volunteered to take part in a war that was wrong from the outset.This is the richest nation on earth, and we have the wherewithal to deal honorably and honestly with those who did as they were told and went off to fight in some of the nastiest places on earth. It is a debt we owe, and it must be paid. John Colson can be reached at jcolson@aspentimes.com.