12/08/2012 02:27 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2013

Healing Vets: Looking Forward and Back

When I opened the email and saw the Cyrillic script below the English translation, I knew it was from one of the vets I met in the late 80s in what was then the Soviet Union.  In 1988 I'd been asked to travel there with four other veteran specialists to help deal with the problems their veterans returning from Afghanistan were experiencing.  Called Afghantsy, these vets were exhibiting symptoms of what we knew was PTSD.  Is there an echo in here? 

Nicholai and I had lost contact over the intervening years.  The internet's a blessing sometimes.  He found the National Veterans Foundation website and saw a video of me that brought back memories.  I met Nicholai on my first trip to Russia, I think.  There were several more.  It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.  I didn't speak a word of Russian beyond yes, no, hello, goodbye and thank you, but that didn't matter.  There was an instant bond of common experience between our group and the Afghantsy.

In 1989 Gorbachev allowed 50 Afghantsy to come to the U.S., and Nicholai and Vadim were among them. Both were disabled vets. Nicholai was a house guest of mine for a few days. After showing these vets Los Angeles, the NVF took the entire group to San Diego to meet with American vets. Then we went to San Francisco to meet with vets there.  Our last visit was to Santa Barbara, where the Afghantsy were greeted by students at UCSB.  Over a thousand people responded to Walter Capp's invitation to hear them speak as part of his class on the Vietnam War. (Capps later went on to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives). That occasion in Santa Barbara was the highlight of the whole trip for the Afghantsy. Nicholai's note was full of memories of that very special week and news of his life since then.

Not so fortunate was Vadim.  The injuries to his spine, neck, head and ribs turned out to be much more serious than was first thought.  In addition to PTSD, he suffered from recurring migraines, still does. Heavy meds dealt with the pain for a while, but as you know there are negative side effects, not to mention the deteriorating quality of life he has had to put up with. I hear about him from a friend we share, the woman who organized the trip in 1988, Diana Glasgow.

Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a hall of mirrors.  Vietnam is forty-plus years behind us; the Russian war in Afghanistan (which ran almost as long as our current war there) ended in 1989 with the final withdrawal of their troops, twenty-plus years ago. My focus these days?  Helping American vets returning from the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some of them, like Nicholai, are able to transition over time back into civilian life.  Others, like Vadim, never really leave the war behind because of injuries, both physical and psychological.  Here's the echo: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Russians in Afghanistan and now us. It's not like we can't see what's ahead of us.

We know so much more about helping vets now.  But that's challenged by the nature of injuries from blasts, IED's and multiple deployments.  The VA can't do it all.   We need the help of the whole society to help these warriors heal.  That means money and it means time.  It means making their healing a pressing issue, not something easily set aside for other political concerns. You can help by putting pressure on your representatives so they know that caring for our veterans is a real priority. After you've done that, support the community-based organizations that are working for veterans with your financial gift or by volunteering.  Know a vet?  Start there.