THE BLOG

20/20 Hindsight: What if Iraq Continues to Unravel?

01/27/2014 02:05 pm ET | Updated Mar 29, 2014

In my last post, I talked about the effect of the fall of Fallujah on veterans. Veterans of all eras -- not just the ones who served in Anbar province or in other parts of Iraq in 2004 when both Battles of Fallujah took place. You read that right -- both. The battles in April and December of that year were among the fiercest and the bloodiest.

The Second Battle of Fallujah with its urban conflict has been compared to the Battle for Huế in Vietnam in 1968. Just as it's likely that you didn't remember there were two battles for Fallujah, I'd guess that if you remember the Tet Offensive in 1968, your memory is that the Viet Cong was eventually beaten back during that campaign. But that wasn't the end of the story, was it?

Forty-five years later, we are still dealing with veterans of the Tet Offensive and their colleague -- all of whom are at risk of having their PTSD symptoms reactivate at the news of the fall of Fallujah. Oh, and their families. Don't forget them.

What's my point? Just this: We can expect to see more PTSD suffering, more veteran homelessness and an increase in the suicide rate. A CBS news story  on January 10 quoted Dr. Jan Kemp, VA National Mental Health Program Director for Suicide Prevention, as saying that while she expected to see an increase in suicide, the rate of increase for vets in their 20s was alarming. CBS called it a "an increase of 44 percent in the two years from 2009 to 2011." That's what I'd call it too. Note that the data is two years old. Then look again at the headlines from Fallujah.

When Saigon fell in 1975, I watched the wave hit the vets I was working with. I listened to their frustration and rage, heard them question the purpose of all that sacrifice, and witnessed them struggling with the return of full-blown PTSD while they tried to get their minds around the proposition that it had all been in vain -- all that effort, all that bravery, all those lives.

These 20-something vets were boys when they went to war. Returning, they carry the notion of invincibility the young have. You had it. So did I. While it's true that more of them are seeking medical treatment at the VA, not so many are acknowledging that they might be in serious trouble from invisible injuries. Anger and depression get written off or ignored. It's not easy for them to relinquish that aura of invincibility. In some ways, I guess that's what got them through their military experiences. So the question of whether they accomplished any real change hits them pretty hard.

Likewise older vets who watch these young ones with awakened memories of themselves at that age. Theirs is a frustration experienced by veterans of all wars.

I've watched this for over 40 years. Does it make me sad? Yes, but mostly it calls me to action. I hope these thoughts have that effect on you. The NVF's Lifeline for Vets (888-777-4443) puts vets in crisis or confusion in touch with other vets, connecting them to counseling, services, information and training. We're a small, but dedicated group. You know the size of the problem. We could use a little help here. Speak up for them, will you? And speak up to them. Make eye contact. Ask them how they are. Welcome them home and mean it. If you have a chance to listen or direct them to help, take that chance. You know somebody who needs to hear this message? Pass it on.