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Rev. Christine Miller Headshot

When Wounded Warriors Come Home

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I thank the Huffington Post for reporting on the issue of how we will deal with our wounded warriors as a nation. I've struggled with this issue as an ethical and moral issue. I was a Chaplain in the Navy during the Cold War, but did not serve in combat, first because I was a woman, and we had no opportunity at the time, and because, I thank God, it was mostly peacetime with a few small conflicts.

As I have watched the medical technology explode, and we are able to bring all these people back, I sometimes wonder if we aren't playing God. And I sometimes wonder if we should -- if our wisdom has caught up with our medical expertise.

In WWII, our troops went overseas, and the vast majority who were severely injured died of their injuries in the theatre of battle. Often they were buried overseas, and their families got a teletype that told them that their son/husband, etc. had died in action. Ken Burns' marvelous series on WWII describes this reality in important, and powerful ways. I watched it with my father, a retired Navy Captain and WWII veteran, who never served overseas, but was called to Washington as a weapons developer... and who secretly thought he had "missed out" somehow. Ken Burns' film, I think, finally helped him understand just how lucky he was to have lived through that without battle injuries, physical or psychological.

Korea was really like WWII; perhaps a few more bodies were returned; we didn't have so many ships sunk, for one. M*A*S*H's field hospital spoke a bit about life-saving military medicine and air evacuations, but it was in Vietnam where, I think, we first started getting injured troops home from the field of battle in significant percentages. The evac choppers, the ability to airlift to modern medical hospitals and hospital ships within hours of injury, or a few days, kept many more alive, if we could deal with airways, bleeding and amputations in time.

But the wars of this decade are different. We are providing medics and corpsmen who probably, at age 20-24, are as capable as most medical officers were in WWII. They are fearless, and they will keep their buddy alive -- sometimes people whose injuries test the abilities of the best trauma centers in the US. They then have choppers, surgical operating rooms within minutes, not hours, and flights back stateside if warranted, with sometimes barely more than 24 hours elapsed from battlefield, to Bethesda/Walter Reed. It is incredible to see, as I train with these people, both as a Police chaplain and as a Disaster Assistance Response Team member, in my home town, what we can mobilize, and the standardization of proven procedures in a way that is on the edge of miraculous...

But then come the issues.

Families in earlier wars got messages letting them know that their loved one wasn't returning. They grieved, and many of their neighbors were also grieving... the Bedford VA community (which lost 19 soldiers on D-Day -- of a population of about 3200) is only the most extreme of this. And then they went about their lives. Their family member became a cherished memory. Jump forward 70 years, and now, we are bringing these extremely damaged personnel home, alive. Their families are excited that she/he is alive.

But then, these men and woman actually are home... and many with TBI aren't the same person who went to war... and some of them are bedridden, or have continence issues, or anger management issues... most are in their 20s and early 30s... and they were physically fit when they were injured. Their heart, muscle systems, bones, etc., are those of a young person. They could live 50-60 years or more. And they are dependent on caregivers.

For too many of these young men and women, they went into the military because they were literally betting their lives on a college education. They had few other options after high school, and even some, after college. No jobs to be had, so no other income, and a family for whom their enlisting meant one less family member to feed. And now what? The family becomes the caregiver, because they don't have the resources to hire caregivers. Or the spouse, who married a strong, young man or woman with a lifetime ahead... and in one second, that is ruined, and they have to provide care for a spouse, even while caring for young children.

After the euphoria wears off... and the family provides care, day after day, perhaps for someone who cannot remember who they are, or needs help to get in and out of bed. What will happen when the parents get old? Even in the best of families, nobility gives way to mourning, loss, and anger, and a sense of entrapment. We as a nation don't have the support system in place to make sure these personnel and their family get the care they need.

And so, the wounded warrior, who did what we asked of him/her, is now the cause of a family trapped into a decades-long nightmare. What do we do? Were they really better off coming home in this condition? What is our national obligation to the wounded warrior and his/her family? Morally we owe them -- we owe them the help they need to be made as whole as possible. We owe their family, who gave of their most important treasure. But, monetarily, how do we afford it? Who else pays for this? The elderly, who lose their benefits? The disabled? Those who need heating fuel help? WIC clients? WHO? We haven't dealt with this as a nation. And most people have no idea what the real bill should be, or is going to be over the years.

These are just a few thoughts that I've struggled with over time. (I also have a mentally challenged brother, who went to Porterville Development Center in California in 1963... he is now 59, and could need care for another 20 years -- my 86-year-old mom grieves for him daily...) so I have grown up with an awareness of the costs to others of those who need our help.

I don't have the answers, merely a lot of questions, and a sadness that even today, too many decision makers in our nation never addressed the real costs of these wars. My heart aches for the families living with a wounded warrior, who wonder every minute, what the future holds, and fear it will be worse than the present.

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