President Obama has just announced his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, which involves an aggressive counter-insurgency operation, sending in an additional 30,000 troops. As IAVA's Paul Rieckhoff notes, the President laid out his plan "without using the word "veteran" and without articulating any back-end support for our returning troops."
Our country reveres its veterans in the abstract, but when it comes to supporting individual veterans after they return from our current wars, our resolve is sorely lacking. Wherever we stand on the wars politically, no young man or woman who has served in uniform should return home to find that no one cares, to find no psychological support, no career support, no moral support. But that is often exactly what happens.
Last night, as the President was delivering his speech, I had the privilege of attending a screening of How to Fold a Flag, the new film by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, that shines a searing light onto the challenges facing returning soldiers. The film is about 4 veterans of the Iraq War (who we first met in their 2004 film, Gunner Palace) after they have returned home. As the filmmakers note, "How To Fold a Flag is not about a war, it is about a country at war."
Javorn Drummond, who found himself "kicking-in doors in Baghdad" by the time he was 19, returned home to struggle with PTSD, a dead-end job, and a healthcare system that shuffled paperwork while his impoverished mother succumbed to cancer. Jon Powers (admittedly, a friend and the reason I was at the screening), returned from serving as a Captain in Iraq and became dismayed at the leadership in Washington DC. He ran for Congress and was defeated by a gaggle of millionaires who attacked him for never having held a "real job". Michael Goss returned from Iraq with demons aplenty and has found an outlet as a cage fighter. When he hit bottom, the army failed him, the VA failed him, and it was his fellow soldiers to whom he reached out who provided what help they could in the face of an indifferent system. Stuart Wilf doesn't talk much about the war -- he's cynical of power and of protest, plays in his metal band, and tries to live in the moment. Ben Colgan never returned from Iraq. His was the first combat death in the unit, and his parents will carry that loss with them forever.
Each of these stories is powerful for its specificity and its lack of sentimentality. The filmmakers have documented a piece of the real lives of these men and the real struggles they are facing. While each of their stories are their own, we all bear some responsibility for their hardships.
With the deployment of roughly 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and the newly announced plan to start bringing them home in 2011, more and more vets will come back to find a system that is not prepared for them unless we can muster the political will to fix it right now. The VA health care budget must be presented to the President and signed immediately; the system must be reformed to provide for real mental health support for returning soldiers, and employment assistance services -- from translating military experience into resume items to conducting a modern job search -- must be provided.
As How to Fold a Flag powerfully shows, the costs of war do not only come overseas and do not end when the soldiers come home.