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Book Review: The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle against America's Veterans

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The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans
by Aaron Glantz. 254 pages. UC Press $24.95 Book Review by Luis Carlos Montalván

In January 2009 alone, 24 veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide. The following month, the Army announced that there were 128 documented suicides in 2008, the highest number since it began keeping records in 1980.

When the subject of veterans' care is raised in most circles, people tend to think of the scandal at Walter Reed Hospital or of Soldiers and Marines returning home without limbs and/or with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Rarely, do they grasp the deeper problems facing veterans.

This ignorance, which is encouraged by Government agencies, explains why "The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans," will enflame readers' passions while enlightening their minds.

What makes this book about war different?

From the time of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and the scrolls of Homer and Herodotus, literature's most memorable dramatis personæ have been warriors. Indeed, humanity seems continually captivated by the paradox captured by Tolstoy's War and Peace. Tolstoy further reminded us:

In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.

The author of "The War Comes Home," Aaron Glantz, who spent parts of three years covering the war in Iraq, does what no professional journalist has done heretofore - he chronicles combat from the bloody Middle Eastern battlefields to both the hospital beds where broken body parts lie and the living rooms where relationships are torn asunder as a hidden but real collateral damage of these wars.

The effects on America's sons and daughters, their families and our society at large are meticulously detailed through Glantz's powerfully compelling yet simply rendered factual accounting. He explains how the government and its systems have created the neglect behind the Walter Reed scandal as well as the outrage that is the Veterans Administration so-called health care system. In so doing, he appeals to our collective conscience.

One result amounts to an impassioned plea to the US government to wake up and undo the bureaucratic logjam that prevents wounded heroes from recovering. Glantz makes clear that the struggle begins the moment a service member returns home from the war zone. Veterans' readjustment to family, friends and society is often complicated or even sabotaged by the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Glantz discusses Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the signature wound of Mr. Bush's wars that ravages the once able-minded. Citing mind-boggling RAND Corporation data, he reminds us that more than 320,000 veterans have experienced TBI while deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

And he reminds us that only when a returning soldier or Marine utters a cry for help does the fight really begin - against the unsympathetic and inhumane juggernauts of the Departments of Defense and Veterans' Affairs.

One of many personal stories woven into the narrative is that of Army Specialist Eric Edmondson. On October 2, 2005, while supporting a Marine Corps offensive near the Syrian border, his Stryker vehicle was struck by a terrorist-detonated Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Edmonson lost his right leg and his spleen to shrapnel. Eric's family had to put their own lives on hold in the effort to support their son by, as they put it, "trying to battle our way through the labyrinth of bureaucracy called government."

One of several trenchantly named chapters is "Homeless on the streets of America," so called because, according to records compiled by the VA and the National Council on Homeless Veterans, on any given night, nearly 200,000 veterans "sleep in a doorway, alley or box." Sad to say, most of these veterans served in Vietnam, but those of today's wars are steadily swelling the ranks of the homeless.

Full light is thrown on the growing backlog of veterans' disability claims. Since the start of the Iraq War, such claims "have grown from 325,000 to more than 600,000," Glantz writes. To the everlasting shame of the previous administration and others inside the beltway, neither the VA nor the DOD has done anything to anticipate the future increase of veterans. Six years into Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA still fails to care adequately and appropriately for these men and women.

Glantz's monograph raises the quintessential question that has been repeated throughout history:

"Why is it that, generation after generation, Americans who've risked their lives for their country return to do battle with their own government?"

The answer is elusive. But Glantz believes that when the media raise a veterans' issue, politicians are only temporarily stirred. Even then, it usually serves only to deprecate the mistreatment of those who have sacrificed for their country. Shortly after, both press and politicians tend to revert to idle talk that leaves veterans to suffer anguish and frustration in silent anonymity.

Simply put, "The War Comes Home" is transfixing. Like Rodin's famous sculpture, The Thinker, perched atop the Gates of Hell, what lies between the book's lines expresses simultaneous rage and sadness. For veterans who read the book, traumatic memories of fellow soldiers loved and lost may exacerbate physical and psychological wounds. So, be prepared to scream aloud, reach for the pills, or both.

Mr. Glantz concludes by asking what he calls "the billion-dollar question": Will the former administration's loathsome legacy mistreating millions of veterans continue, or will a new President's vision and promise bring forth the fulfillment of Abraham Lincoln's famous call

"...to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan"?

Only time and veterans will tell.