Last Sunday, as NATO members met to discuss their upcoming plans for the war in Afghanistan, some members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Vets Against the War (IAVW) publicly returned their medals in protest of the repeated decision to continue putting Americans in harm's way. Their message highlights the sharp divide between those making war policy and those who actually have to fight in those wars; it shows us that there is a sharp disconnect that tends to ignore the concerns of the people who fill our boots on the ground.
It is a sign that we should think of this year's Memorial Day as more than the three-day weekend that people have come to treat it as. As President Barack Obama begins to bring more of our men and women in uniform home from Iraq and Afghanistan, we should use this Memorial Day as an opportunity to remember the sacrifices that American soldiers of all social and political stripes have made in defense of our country. More importantly, it is a day in which we should show our veterans gratitude for the service that they have performed. I encourage everyone to express their gratitude to friends, loved ones and fellow community members whose brave service may not otherwise garner the full recognition that is deserved.
It should astonish us, for instance, that almost one-fifth of military service members returning from our chosen wars in Iraq and Afghanistan displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which takes a heavy toll on one's day-to-day life and can impair basic mental functions. Research from the RAND Corporation has found that if the government actually provided returning veterans with high-quality treatment of their mental health issues, we could drastically reduce the overall cost to society posed by this public health problem.
We need to make it clear that we treat those who defend our freedoms with dignity and respect. But the rate at which we let our veterans fall by the wayside is appalling. When one out of four homeless persons is a veteran, clearly we have failed them as a nation. We should make it easier for soldiers to transition into civilian life. The efforts of the Department of Veterans Affairs under the leadership of Secretary Eric K. Shinseki have made some good first steps in addressing the problem, but more work needs to be done to help our returning heroes become successful on the homefront.
As a Korean War veteran, I understand that the battlefield is a harrowing place. Often, the people making the decisions to send our troops into combat do not fully understand the ramifications of their actions. That is why I have been an avid proponent of the Universal National Service Act, which would mandate that all Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 perform two years of national service, so that everyone understands what it really means to serve their country.
We cannot continue to ignore the plight of the American veterans that deserve our gratitude more than any other. Shared sacrifice is paramount. We must not falter in giving back to those who have already given their lives to protect our great nation.
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