I had occasion recently to meet with a future veteran (I pray) and a Vietnam veteran. I talked to them both when I went home over Memorial Day weekend. On that particular Saturday night they were separated by just a couple of walls as we cooked food on the grill and tossed back a few cold ones. Time will tell if their stories converge or end up on different paths. I’m not sure which I wish for.
Home is Fayetteville. My stepfather James is in his seventies, and I always look forward to seeing him. No matter what happens, he’s in good spirits. And he’s had a lot happen to him. James is both a veteran and an immigrant. That puts him in the middle of two of the most contentious debates raging in this country. Right now, though, late in his life, he is dealing with health issues from the time spent in Vietnam.
Here’s the deal with guys like James, and I’m sure there are tens of thousands like him in our military right now. He was a Special Forces sergeant who saw plenty of action. He was exposed to Agent Orange and had a few wounds from gunfire. He came home with a chest full of medals.
As far as he was concerned, he was fine when he retired. He could swing a hammer and hold a paint brush, and he still liked to go out and run a few miles. Didn’t file any paperwork in hopes of disability later. He was content to let those who couldn’t work get the benefits, those who obviously suffered. That was his common refrain.
His problems, though, came later. Type II diabetes, one of the diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure, has changed his life. A guy who once made his living jumping out of airplanes can now barely walk. During the last couple of years there were times when it seemed amputation might be in his future.
The issue I have is that my mother went through hell trying to get the Veterans Administration to recognize James’ problems and compensate him accordingly. The promise for career military men is this: if you dedicate the prime years of your life to the Armed Services, they’ll take care of you as long as you live. James would much rather work than be bed-ridden, but he doesn’t have a choice. And, when he needed it most, it seemed as if the VA was not going to provide the care he needed.
By my estimation it was a sorry way to treat a combat veteran who never complained, only did what he was told to. My mom fought her own war with them, and luckily she proved tougher than the bureaucrats she was up against. Otherwise, he would have gotten a raw deal.
The kid I met that same weekend in Fayetteville is in active service now. He’s dating one of my cousins, and I took him to be about 26. A farm boy who grew up hunting and fishing in Idaho, he seemed the perfect candidate for the military: bright, strong, patriotic, familiar with survival skills. He’s Special Operations, doing his second tour in Afghanistan.
My brother, also a veteran, and I found ourselves in a corner of my mother’s porch talking to the young soldier for about two hours. He recounted stories young men have always come home from war telling, that of maimed strangers and maimed comrades, of violence so savage that the men and women in his unit are forced to search for twisted humor rather than deal honestly with what they confront. He laughed as he told us about young Afghan children who risk death to retrieve copper and brass shell casings as firefights rage.
When he went home to visit his family in Idaho, he was treated like a hero everywhere he went simply because he wore the uniform. He seemed proud of that fact, but also a little confused as to its meaning. While in Afghanistan, at an isolated base somewhere near the Pakistani border, he chose to take the signing bonus and re-up for a second tour. He’s at Ft. Bragg until August, and then it’s back.
Like my stepfather James, who often used to wander the house at all hours, the young soldier told us of the sleepless nights he’s endured since coming home, of how he had heard about that from older soldiers but was experiencing it for the first time. From what I remember of my friends’ fathers in Fayetteville, I suspect those nights will be part of his life forever.
There are enough people writing about the problems in Iraq, so I won’t go there. As of this week, 25,000 U.S. soldiers have been wounded already in that war. More than 3,500 have died. On Memorial Day, many of us went to hear a current or former soldiers give a speech, or we waved flags during a parade.
Perhaps it’s more important to learn about how our government is not doing its part to pay for veteran’s benefits. As fewer and fewer people serve in the military, fewer see the need to fund VA hospitals, disability pensions, and counseling for those who have served in our wars. Soldiers don’t have the right equipment and therefore more are injured. Today, unfortunately, we’re subscribing to patriotism on the cheap.
That young soldier was convinced to re-enlist, and I suspect the signing bonus proved too generous to turn down. But 40 years from now, if he’s lucky enough to come back from the second tour, will the government be there when he really needs help?