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Andersen: The 1 percent who needs us

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Adam McCabe received a Purple Heart from a wound he received in Iraq as a sergeant in the Marine Corps.

“Less than 1 percent fights for our freedoms,” he said, “and when that fight takes its toll, it is up to the other 99 percent to help them to heal and to grow whole again so they may embrace the freedoms they fought so hard for.”

Awareness of veterans — the 1 percent — is growing fast in the U.S., driven by the shocking statistic of 22 veteran suicides per day. With scandals tearing apart the Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. veterans have become a national priority. Two events next week can help make it a local priority.

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Basalt Library, three veterans from three wars will discuss in a public forum the sacrifices made during war and the continuing sacrifices made after war.

This weekend, veterans will be reading a staged production of a powerful play — “Make Sure It’s Me” — which takes a close look at vets at a VA hospital who are being treated for traumatic brain injury.

This is not light fare. It is disquieting, and it should be. If Americans are to begin to understand, even partially, the price of our military engagements, hearing it from veterans is the place to start.

At Wednesday’s program at the Basalt Library, the panel will consist of Dr. Gerald Alpern, who treated Korean War veterans for psychological wounds; retired Lt. Col Dick Merritt, who fought with the Marines in Vietnam; and McCabe.

These veterans will describe their military experiences and the issues they and their comrades-at-arms have faced since the end of their service. What they have to say about the current VA scandals will be blunt and to the point.

Not only are veterans cast into a weak job market and an isolating social environment, but they are adrift within a nation that fails to understand their needs or the depths of their despair. Failure at college is another symptom.

What the civilian population often fails to understand is that these veterans are bright, dignified and highly capable men and women. Saying, “Thank you for your service” is simply not enough to acknowledge what they have undergone and what they now face.

“Make Sure It’s Me” will dig deep into the challenges facing veterans who suffer debilitating injuries, some of which are not fully validated by the VA or the Department. of Defense. This play offers an insider view of treatment for soldiers who were blown up in serial detonations that literally rattled their brains.

Getting to know veterans on this level is disturbing not only for the suffering they endure by losing critical cognitive functions but for a general lack of understanding of their desperation.

Americans not only have a right to know this; we have an obligation to feel it viscerally, which is what theater is all about. This play, a fundraiser for Huts for Vets, an Aspen nonprofit that takes vets to the 10th Mountain Huts, is a wake-up call for the next time America contemplates military actions.

What’s amazing about this play is that the actors who will be reading the parts do not need to act. They will portray their parts with the complete honesty of self. Their bios in the playbook speak to this.

“We started taking nerve-agent pills,” recounts a Desert Storm veteran, “which make you sick when you take them, and years later. Combine these with DEET and oil smoke and you get ‘Gulf War Syndrome,’ from which I suffer today. War is not pretty, and things happen that you cannot control. You wish you could take some of it back, but you can’t. It is not a sane environment. I am proud of my actions. I brought my team home alive. We accomplished our mission. I still struggle.”

“Make Sure It’s Me” shows Thursday at the Glenwood Springs Vaudeville Theater, Friday at Paepcke Auditorium and Saturday at Vail Mountain School. Tickets are $20. Plan to be there by 7 p.m. and meet these veterans. They may change you life.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached by email at andersen@rof.net.


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